Row over Max Verstappen’s F1 ‘cost cap championship’ rumbles on

Sport

Formula One’s budget cap was intended to draw financial lines in the sand. With the furore of its breach by Red Bull still echoing, it appears to have instead become a rallying call to form battle lines in what is an increasingly combative and toxic atmosphere bemoaned by many within the sport.

Red Bull were deemed to have broken the £114m budget cap for 2021 by £1.86m and acknowledged this in an “accepted breach agreement” with the FIA. The team conceded they had broken the cap and accepted a £6.05m fine and a 10% reduction in wind tunnel time.

F1 would have hoped that was the end of an unseemly row that has overshadowed the sport since the Singapore GP, and indeed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen securing his second title in Japan. Yet it rumbled on through the last two rounds in the US and Mexico with the atmosphere only growing more noxious.

Verstappen has been dubbed the “cost cap champion” on social media, a narrative questioning the legitimacy of his title that has only fed into the already existing anger at how he took his first title, beating Lewis Hamilton in controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi last year. The budget cap breach only caused already entrenched feelings to be further exacerbated.

Red Bull were bullish in their defence. Team principal Christian Horner cited mental health problems for team members because of allegations of cheating and describing the budget cap breach penalty as “draconian” and influenced by the lobbying of his rivals.

Already partisan fans have leapt on this to defend the team and Verstappen, as have their detractors as a means of attack. Then there was the distinct sense of a bunker mentality when Verstappen and the team said they would not speak to Sky TV at the Mexican GP because of comments made by Sky broadcaster Ted Kravitz in which he said Hamilton had been “robbed” of an eighth title in Abu Dhabi.

Kravitz did not accuse Verstappen or Red Bull of robbing Hamilton, instead stating he had been robbed by the decisions of FIA race director Michael Masi, who was later removed and implicated in the FIA’s own investigation which cited “human error” in the decision-making process.

Kravitz has nonetheless attracted an avalanche of poisonous reactions on social media and it is hard not to sense F1 is starting to fray a little at the edges. Red Bull’s approach has been perceived as displaying a lack of tolerance, a confrontational attitude of a binary nature, exacerbating the divide between fans.

One senior figure in the sport views the current situation with concern. “They seem to have a view that if you are not with us you are against us,” he said. “It leaves no middle ground, because you are either in opposition or allegiance.” Nor is this confined to the relentless tit for tat slanging match that now dominates F1 social media and below-the-line comments. Earlier this week Matthew Syed took Horner to task in the Times, accusing him of gracelessness and gaslighting. “How dare the Red Bull principal deploy sensitive moral issues such as bullying and mental health to deflect from his own rule-breaking,” Syed wrote.

As if to illustrate that, nowadays, nothing in F1 goes without reaction from even the most unlikely source, the wife of Red Bull technical director Adrian Newey took to Twitter to castigate Syed. “What qualifies you to judge me, my husband’s or any member or family member of Red Bull’s mental state?,” she wrote. “Provoking the fans with toxic journalism adds to the problem.” “The growth in fan enmity, the toxic online atmosphere, there is a growing concern in the sport that the neutral ground has gone,” noted another paddock insider.

This is not how F1 wants, or needs, to go into the close season with two races remaining. The budget cap is done and for all concerned to move on there needs to be rapprochement, which must be led by senior figures setting an example to the fans. To draw a line once and for all on what has become a needlessly vituperative climate.