Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that in a year when so much is different – and therefore there are so many opportunities to exploit – that Formula 1 is going all-in on the politics. But it’s pretty fun to watch.
Sometimes you get caught up in the more immediate issues, and things like the UK quarantine rules and COVID-19 situation in Spain were casting doubt over this race over the past few weeks. So much so that from a personal point of view I wasn’t expecting to be attending until just five days ago, when a solution was sorted out.
Telling you about my last-minute change of plans is just so you know my excuse for ending up with a late flight in on Thursday, arriving halfway through media day when five of the 10 driver line-ups had spoken. And it turned out they were talking a lot about power unit modes.
Mercedes’ dominance this year has been extremely impressive, but not particularly good for the sporting spectacle. Max Verstappen’s win last weekend breathes new life into the championship, but he’s still more than a race win adrift of Lewis Hamilton, and it is a huge long shot to imagine him winning the title from this position.
Part of Mercedes’ strength has been on Saturdays, when the full hand gets laid on the table towards the end of qualifying. In Q2 and Q3, Mercedes makes a clear step forward and is miles ahead of everybody else. We’ve also seen significant qualifying gains from Racing Point and Williams this year, which is not a surprise when you remember that both use Mercedes power.
Last year, Ferrari’s power unit performance was significantly pegged back by technical directives. So when Mercedes was able to respond to that level of performance this year and nobody else could, the easiest thing for rivals to do is to try and pull it back rather than catch it up. But is the timing coincidental?
‘Coincidences’ have been prevalent on many fronts recently, after all. The potential power unit mode clampdown comes soon after Toto Wolff made clear Mercedes was not happy with the terms of the Concorde Agreement and did not want to sign ahead of an initial deadline of August 12, instead calling on Formula 1 to enter into further discussions. The FIA is part of that agreement too, but it was F1 that spoke up and insisted it would not be delayed in signing the new contracts.
The Concorde Agreement is perhaps the most important contract that exists in F1, tying the teams, the sport and the FIA together on commercial terms, and outlining the way the sport will work moving forward for a number of years. In many ways, it defines the rules of engagement that the main stakeholders are signing up to on a political front rather than a sporting one.
Then this week, it was confirmed that the initial deadline of August 12 date has now been pushed back to August 18, with a final deadline of the end of the month. So there’s still negotiating room.
And when there’s negotiating room, you tend to get different participants trying to flex their muscle, looking to force concessions from each other.
While Mercedes now potentially faces seeing its Saturday qualifying performance advantage reduced – or at least targeted – that threat also comes amid the ongoing appeals against the Racing Point brake ducts decision. Renault initially lodged the complaint, so it’s no surprise it appealed, and it’s also completely understandable that Racing Point is looking to defend itself.
But Ferrari has pushed ahead with an appeal, partly driven by the fact Racing Point is currently a threat in the constructors’ championship this season, so this could be a way of wounding a rival. Similarly, if it can implicate Mercedes somehow, that’s a future rival taking a hit, too.
And it’s not a fanciful suggestion that other teams could look to implicate Mercedes further, as Red Bull team principal Christian Horner admits.
“Regarding the Mercedes, I’m sure those questions will get asked because if the team in question are guilty of receiving then surely the team that has provided has been also in breach of those regulations,” he says. “That’s something for the FIA.”
Back to the FIA again, the ones suggesting the rules surrounding power unit modes could change. Something that could also hurt Mercedes. What was it I was saying about negotiating room and concessions earlier?
Not that this is all anti-Mercedes, by any means. As a team, it too can show just how much skin it has in the game to help its position on any of the above topics.
As well as making his position on Concorde known, Wolff was vocal in his support of Racing Point at Silverstone, and felt other teams were ganging up when there had been no wrongdoing. Clearly siding with Racing Point, he was then faced with four teams lodging an intention to appeal, with McLaren and Williams joining Ferrari and Renault.
Williams is a current Mercedes customer and runs Mercedes-managed George Russell, while McLaren will become a Mercedes customer next season. Both have a relationship that needs protecting, but both made their position known on the Racing Point car philosophy before withdrawing the notice to appeal.
That doesn’t mean Wolff was on the phone, but it would be naive to suggest those teams didn’t think about their Mercedes ties and conclude it was best not to push ahead any further when Ferrari and Renault were already doing so. McLaren and Williams had more to lose. Plus, appealing isn’t cheap.
And even if Wolff said nothing, that suggestion of influence is still potent, as it highlights Mercedes’ ties to 40% of the teams on the grid, just at a time when he was publicly complaining about his team not getting the respect it deserves in the Concorde negotiations, which now continue to go on.
The beauty of so much of this is it can be unspoken. It can just be an elephant in a room, but the intertwining of so many interests across parties in Formula 1 always makes for a fascinating backdrop to the racing on track.