Christian Horner. the Red Bull team principal, says his team may take legal action against Mercedes unless Toto Wolff withdraws the “hugely defamatory” allegations he made on Friday night suggesting Red Bull might have breached last year’s budget cap.
Describing the Austrian’s comments as “bang out of order”, Horner also demanded to know how Mercedes appeared to know so much about “what is meant to be a confidential process”.
“We don’t even know if we’ve breached the cap yet,” Horner said. “The process is still ongoing as the FIA said very clearly in a statement last night. They don’t complete the process until next week.
“We take umbrage [at Wolff’s comments]. We believe we are fully compliant. And anyway how on earth do they have this knowledge?
“Unless there is a clear withdrawal we will take extremely seriously all [legal] options available to us. They are bang out of order.
Horner added that Mercedes may be trying to stir up trouble to mask their own “lack of performance this year”.
“People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he concluded. “Is it any coincidence that Max [Verstappen] has his first shot [at winning this year’s drivers’ championship] this weekend?”
Wolff calls for 'robust punishment' if salary cap has been breached
On Friday, Wolff called on world motorsport’s governing body, the FIA, to come down hard on Red Bull if they are found guilty of breaching last year’s budget cap, saying it would be a “massively heavyweight” violation of the rules and demanding a “robust” response.
News broke in the paddock on Friday that two teams were in danger of being declared non-compliant with the cap of $145 million which was introduced last year. The FIA is due to complete its auditing process and issue certificates of compliance next Wednesday.
Red Bull and Aston Martin were the teams named in media reports in Germany and Italy, with one of the breaches said to be “minor” and the other “material”. The cost-cap regulations define an overspend of less than five per cent as “minor” and more than that as “material”. Both denied the allegations.
There are a range of penalties available to the FIA should it find anyone in breach, including points deductions if there are any aggravating factors such as “bad faith, dishonesty, wilful concealment or fraud”.
Points deductions would be the nuclear option. Last year’s championship denouement was already one of the most controversial in history with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen pipping Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton to the title but only after then FIA race director, Michael Masi, withdrew a late safety car with one lap remaining of the final race in Abu Dhabi, effectively handing the Dutchman the title. Masi was subsequently found to have erred in doing so and relieved of his duties.
While there is no serious expectation that the result of that championship will be overturned, any breach of the financial regulations would further sour Verstappen’s title win.
Horner admits there are grey areas
Red Bull clearly believe their rivals are stirring up trouble for them at a sensitive moment in the season, with the Dutch driver on the verge of a second successive drivers’ title. Red Bull’s team principal, Horner, speaking after first practice on Friday, insisted the submission put in back in March was “below the cap”, although he did concede that there were clearly grey areas. “It is a brand new set of very complicated regulations, so how rules are interpreted and applied inevitably are going to be subjective between the teams and as the years go by things will get tidied up,” he said. “But we are confident in our submission. There are always going to be rumours – I’ve heard of major breaches but I’m certainly not aware of that.”
Wolff expressed his surprise at that claim, and denied that this was just “the usual playground politics”.
“It’s heavyweight, it’s massively heavyweight,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “We are using ‘used’ parts. We are not running what we would want to run. And we are not developing what we could be developing. We have made more than 40 people redundant that are dearly missed in our organisations.
“It was a huge, mammoth project to make the cap. I don’t know how many tens of millions we had to restructure processes in order to be below the cap, and if someone has been not doing that or pushing the boundaries, every million [over the cap spent] is a massive disadvantage [for us].
“I find it funny that Christian says [Red Bull are below the cap] because it’s been weeks and months they are being investigated, so maybe he doesn’t speak to his CFO.”
Wolff added that it would be “massively” difficult to catch up to a team who broke the cost cap, given the extra benefit they would have gained, and called on the FIA to be “robust” in its application of the rules. “The crucial part is that if you’ve been over in 2021, then you’ve been over in ‘22. That means you have an advantage into ‘23,” the Austrian said. “The FIA, particularly Mohammed [Ben Sulayem, FIA president], have shown a pretty robust stance on enforcing all kinds of regulations.
“So, I think if we’re talking now about something big, he will show the same integrity and leadership that he’s done before.”
Hamilton, then Ferrari, lead practice
Out on track, Carlos Sainz led Charles Leclerc in a Ferrari one-two in an apparently unrepresentative second practice session after Hamilton topped the timesheets in first practice.
Verstappen, who was celebrating his 25th birthday on Friday, had a frustrating day disrupted by technical issues. He managed only seven laps in FP2, finishing fourth quickest between the two Mercedes.
The Dutchman could wrap up the title as early as Sunday if he wins the race and Leclerc and Sergio Pérez finish down the field.