2022 has been a Formula 1 season largely without controversy so far. Well, major controversy at least. Perhaps it’s Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes not figuring in the title fight, but the battle between Red Bull and Ferrari hasn’t lit the touch paper in the same way. At least not yet.
Part of the reason is that we’re still so early in the season, and there was less tension between Christian Horner and Toto Wolff – and of course their respective teams and drivers – at the same point last year. But we’ve finally seen the first sparks that suggest a little fire could soon ignite between Ferrari and Red Bull.
It stems from a slightly defensive answer from Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto in Miami, after seeing Max Verstappen secure maximum points on back-to-back race weekends. Binotto insisted he wasn’t worried about Red Bull’s performance gains so far this season because of the amount of development he has seen on his rival’s car.
“If there’s any concern, it’s how much they’re developing considering the budget cap – that’s certainly a concern I have got, but more than a concern, maybe it’s a hope, as at some stage they will need to stop,” he said, adding that he “would not understand how they can do that” if the new parts don’t stop coming for Red Bull.
It was quite a pointed answer, and a typical tactic from team bosses when they want to see the FIA pay attention to what another team is doing. In this case, it’s a new and complex area for the governing body to police, as the financial regulations were only introduced last year.
Teams have $140 million to spend on the majority of areas that are related to car development and car performance each year – save for items such as the power unit – and each accounting year includes both the spend on developing the current car and some of the work undertaken for the following year’s design.
But as the regulations state, a team only has to explain to the FIA how and where it spent its money by March 31 of the following year, so it’s still 10 months until the governing body can fully see how any constructor has handled the budget cap. An interim reporting deadline is in place at the end of June, but that obviously won’t show what happens beyond that point.
Binotto’s comments are the first to come from either of the front-running teams about the amounts being spent on car development by others, in a year when that spend is likely to have the biggest return. With new, immature regulations that all of the teams are still getting on top of, the largest performance gains are on offer early on, either through new solutions in underdeveloped areas, or by copying what rivals are doing that appears to be working.
And unlike last season, the stability in the rules for 2023 means that development will also have an impact on next year’s car as well as this year’s, so you can see how lucrative it could be in performance terms to throw as much resource as possible at upgrades.
For Red Bull’s part, the response has been that there will be further car improvements in Barcelona, following a trend where many teams usually bring upgrades given the proximity to their headquarters in Europe. A lighter car is expected, which could prove to be a significant move as so many teams have been struggling with the weight of their 2022 machines.
At this stage, all Binotto has done is set himself up to make a future accusation when it comes to Red Bull’s ability to develop its car so heavily under the budget cap regulations, and it might well have been a deflection technique from both his own team’s relative lack of pace – however small – and accusations that Ferrari also isn’t playing totally by the rules.
A Pirelli tire test at Imola raised eyebrows when the team was seen running different floor solutions during the day, but the FIA cleared the Scuderia of any wrongdoing because the part had been seen in pre-season testing and therefore wasn’t new. It clearly isn’t what a tire test is intended for, but Ferrari broke no rules with that one.
More recently, a filming day at Monza was similarly used to test new parts ahead of their introduction in Barcelona, with Ferrari trying to keep the test private. Filming days – or “promotional events”, as they are officially termed – are described in the sporting regulations as something that “shall be defined as an event in which a competitor participates purely for marketing or promotional purposes”.
Flo-viz paint on the rear wing caught the eye of some on social media, but as long as Ferrari can prove to the FIA it was for marketing or promotional purposes then the team won’t have any issues. But it’s likely to be a topic brought up by Red Bull in Barcelona, especially if Ferrari has the upper hand.
As ever, tight battles between teams lead to finger pointing and accusations, and it’s the unseen but rumored aspects that tend to build the most momentum. While Ferrari can’t see Red Bull’s budget spend and understand how it handles its development costs, if the current trend continues then Binotto is likely to revisit his comments in future.
Similarly, given that Red Bull couldn’t be at the filming day or tire test, Horner will accuse Ferrari of exploiting the rules to test components if he needs a riposte, especially as a promotional event should fall outside of the financial regulations for being “directly attributable to marketing activities”.
Up to now, the biggest controversy surrounding Mercedes has been the FIA’s clampdown on jewelry when drivers are in their cars, and it potentially being targeted at Hamilton. Oh what Wolff would give to be facing accusations from either Ferrari or Red Bull himself…