Just over a year ago, the Formula One paddock was incensed at the news that Red Bull Racing had exceeded the budget cap limit by what was to finally be recorded as around a $500,000 amount. This was an over spend of just 0.37% yet the accusations of CHEATING rang loud and clear from rival team bosses.
However, the world appears to have now been mutually agreed to be ‘out of bounds’ given the recent events surrounding Mercedes AMG F1. In the cold light of day the team were found to be cheating following the FIA’s examination of their cars at the end of the Grand Prix.
Cheating more infrequent in modern F1
A year ago in Austin, Mercedes brought their final upgrade of the year which included a new front wing design intended to “improve management of vortices around the tyres” explained the team’s trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin.
A number of F1 commentators opinions were clear on the matter and it was that Mercedes had tried to cheat. However, things have very much changed in Formula One over the past two decades. Then teams would protest a rivals car and the FIA would investigate.
If the offending part protested was deemed illegal, then the team and or the driver would be disqualified from the sessions where they had deemed to be using an illegal car design.
In modern Formula One the FIA has a much greater level of expertise in its technical department and can now itself identify suspicious car designs and upgrades and warn a potential offending team in advance that they will rule it as illegal.
Mercedes found guilty but avoided the media
This happened to Mercedes in Austin 2022, and Lewis Hamilton was vocal over the ruling stating, “I am certainly not happy. Everyone worked so hard to bring these updates, and we are not moving forward.”
Roll the clock forward a year to the US Grand Prix 2023 and once again Mercedes great the centre of a storm over the legality of their car.
Following the race on Sunday it was discovered by the FIA delegates that two cars had been driven below the legal ride height and Charles Leclerc and Lewis Hamilton were thrown out of the race and disqualified.
With the Mexico City race upcoming in just five days by the time the decision was communicated by the stewards, many of the media, drivers and senior team personnel had left COTA and were on their way.
Wolff says he would risk cheating again
So this weekend in Mexico was the first opportunity for the media to unpack the events surrounding the disqualification of two drivers which is a rare event in modern day F1.
Charles Leclerc and Ferrari held their hands up and admitted they’d got it wrong, but Mercedes decided to take a different PR approach.
Mercedes team boss, Wolff, stated that Mercedes thought their set-up may be on the “limit” but that they’d do it again.
“I take a disqualification running for a race win and seeing the performance against running P3 and ending up 25 seconds adrift,” he told Sky Sports.
“So every day of the week I’ll go for the disqualification.”
FIA should have tested sister cars
Yet this defence appeared more than strange given Mercedes desire to finish the season ahead of Ferrari and for Lewis Hamilton to hunt down Sergio Perez for second place in the drivers’ championship.
The FIA found the first two cars they tested to be illegal and so tested another two for ride hide infringement being race winner Max Verstappen along with the McLaren of Lando Norris.
Its unfortunate they didn’t test either George Russell’s car or that of Carlos Sainz given the other side of their garage had been deemed to have run below the legal limit.
This allowed both teams to claim the Sprint weekend format with just one Friday practice sessions was the reason they were caught out. However, its clear that at least two other teams in Red Bull and McLaren were proven to have decoded the single practice session data and delivered cars with legal ride heights.
Hamilton PR works a dream
Ex-Mclaren racer and Sky expert pundit Martin Brundle waded into the debate and his opinion was firm, that Mercedes had once again tried to cheat in Austin, but unlike in 2022 where they were saved from themselves, this time the team from Brackley was caught out.
When asked about Toto Wolff’s explanation that it was worth the risk, Brundle was adamant. “Absolutely not. I think Toto is being a flippant there.
“Toto and Lewis have done a very good job this weekend of saying nothing to see here, look at all those others they must have been cheating as well or whatever.”
Under the new unwritten code, Brundle corrects himself quickly adding, “cheating is too strong a word -found to be outside of the regulations.”
Red Bull ran higher deliberately
Martin then revealed his sources had informed him a number of teams were concerned about ride height in advance of the Austin weekend.
“But, you know, some teams lifted their cars to be certain because it was a Sprint weekend because it was bumpy, drivers taking curbs, talk of a headwind pushing the cars down a little bit more even on the back straight.”
Max Verstappen confirmed Red Bull had raised the height of their car to ensure they had enough margin of error.
“I don’t know how they set up their cars. I was surprised when I heard about it,” Verstappen said of Red Bull and Hamilton’s disqualification.
“The track is bumpy and you only have one practice session. It can catch you out,” the Red Bull driver continued. As for himself, it worked just the other way around. “We ran the car a bit too high which cost performance,” he explained.
Mercedes illegal by a BIG chunk
Brundle was pulling no punches in his summary of Mercedes ‘cheating’ scandal and revealed his sources suggested: “And I don’t believe that Mercedes was illegal by just a small amount, it was a reasonable chunk.”
“Also I think we have an exceptional circumstance here, we know how much performance comes from lowering these ground-effect aerodynamic cars,” he continued.
Of course disqualification for running an illegal car is in fact a big deal in Formula One and kudos to the FIA for spotting it. Yet the fact the delegates had discovered a problem with two cars should have seen a process initiated where more than a further sample of two was taken – and certainly the sister cars of those disqualified were an obvious target for the compliance test.
Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes have been talking up how their car upgrades are bringing them closer to Red Bull and Max Verstappen in particular, but the recent Mexico City Grand Prix does not support this claim by the silver arrows.
Mercedes upgrade made no ground on Red Bull
When the car was run at a legal height, Lewis Hamilton finished a distant 13.875 seconds behind race winner Max Verstappen. But this is not a true reflection of how far ahead Red Bull really are.
The race was red flagged a lap over half distance and so Verstappen’s early lead was completely wiped out. Add to this that Mercedes had made an incredibly early first stop to overtake Ferrari and were allowed a free change of tyres at the red flag.
Without it, their second stint would have had to be longer than the longest on the hard tyre than anyone achieved in Mexico 2022 and the likelihood is Ferrari would have been stronger towards the closing laps.
The last 3 Grand Prix since the last big Mercedes upgrade have told us nothing other than without cheating Mercedes are still 25-30 seances slower in a Grand Prix than the Red Bull in the hands of ax Verstappen.
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Just last weekend, Lewis Hamilton looked set for another podium finish, this time at the United States Grand Prix in Austin. The seven-time world champion had proved his mettle on the track, finishing second just behind Max Verstappen.
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