EDITORIAL: Another title win with an asterisk for Max Verstappen?

© LAT Images for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd

By Adrian Mann

First off, congratulation to Max Verstappen on winning the 2022 championship at the Japanese Grand Prix. He drove a brilliant season, and whatever his team did or did not do back in 2021, he did everything he had to do to bring the title home.

The win, however, did not come without controversy. First the FIA awarded full points for a shortened race, and then they penalized Charles Leclerc after the race was over, so Max didn’t even know if he had won the title. Ultimately it all doesn’t matter much, as he would have won the title anyway, most probably at the next race.

The big issue is the FIA’s assessment of the 2021 financial data submitted by all Formula 1 teams, and persistent rumours that Red Bull has breached the budget cap. It doesn’t help that the FIA has delayed the unveiling of the results of the assessment. The results were supposed to be announced last Wednesday, but we now have to wait until Monday. It would seem that it was in the FIA’s best interest to release the results as soon as possible, especially if the rumours of Red Bull’s breach are false, so that the speculation can be stopped immediately. However, the fact that there is a delay, begs the question: What’s the hold-up?

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As Toto Wolff recently pointed out, if a team has problems with their finances relating to the budget cap, they would be aware of that, because they would have been in contact with the FIA for months now, as the assesment has been going on for a long time. Therefore statements from Red Bull team boss Christian Horner, saying that his team is ‘confident’ they have “complied with the cost cap”, imply that they do know their financial data submission was not completely straightforward.

But how does this relate to Max’s title win? Well, if indeed Red Bull did breach the cap, this would have given the team a tremendous advantage in 2021, but also in 2022, especially because of the big technical regulations change this year. Last year teams had to split their time and resources between working on their 2021 car and their completely new 2022 challenger. Mercedes famously stopped developing the W12 after the 2021 British Grand Prix, so that they can focus on their 2022 car. If a team decided to breach the budget cap, it would be able to do a lot more on both cars, which would then help them win the current championship, and give them a head start on their new car. Both Mercedes and Ferrari said that the advantage would extend even to 2023, and possibly beyond. Mercedes’ recently released financial data for 2021 confirms just how much the cost cap has impacted the team, so an advantage a team would get if they breached the cap cannot be underestimated.

Like it or not, even without this advantage, there is no disputing that Max’s 2021 title win will always have an asterisk, simply because it would not be possible had race director (at the time) Michael Masi not broken the rules. Had Masi followed the rules in the final moments of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Lewis Hamilton would have been the world champion.

Now, if it turns out that Red Bull did indeed breach the cap, the advantage the team would have in 2022 would no doubt bring into question the legitimacy of their dominance and Verstappen’s title win. In the minds of a big portion of the Formula 1 audience, it would put another asterisk next to Max’s second championship. Even if the FIA announces tomorrow that Red Bull’s finances are all in order, the results of their assessment will undoubtedly be questioned by the public, especially in light of their recent delay.

Hopefully we will know more if the FIA does finally release the results tomorrow, but if Red Bull did indeed breach the budget cap, the team and Max Verstappen might have to answer uncomfortable questions for months, or even years. Same as they still do regarding Abu Dhabi.

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