The scuff marks that could turn the Formula One title race: Red Bull claim it’s a tell-tale sign of ILLEGAL trickery to give Lewis Hamilton extra pace in his battle with Max Verstappen but Mercedes deny any wrongdoing
One protest rejected. One more likely inbound. Two team principals three feet apart but separated by a chasm. Barbs flying. Welcome back to the most fractious world championship fight in recent memory.
First thing, the news that was left hanging the night before: would Max Verstappen be penalised for driving as hard as teak in his squabble with Lewis Hamilton for the lead in Brazil a week ago?
The stewards, acting so arthritically they were in danger of giving VAR a good name, reached the decision on the sixth day, not to reopen the matter. In fairness, their rationale was clear and correct.
Red Bull have voiced suspicions about Lewis Hamiliton’s rear wing amid a fractious title fight
Max Verstappen was fined £43,000 for touching Hamilton’s rear wing at Brazilian Grand Prix
Red Bull boss Christian Horner is trying to seek answers over Mercedes’ new found speed
They decided that on-board footage provided by Mercedes met three of the four necessary criteria: it was new; unavailable at the time; relevant; but not ‘significant’. Case dismissed, the fear of Pandora’s Box being opened averted.
So going into the inaugural Qatar Grand Prix, Hamilton trails the 24-year-old Red Bull man by 14 points.
News of the verdict arrived as Mercedes’ Toto Wolff and Red Bull’s Christian Horner were going wheel-to-wheel in the press conference, where Horner stated that his suspicions over Hamilton’s car could lead the team to protest.
In layman’s terms, Horner is complaining of scuff marks on the end plates allegedly caused by an imperceptible flex of the wing under load, gifting the defending champion some of the extra pace that powered him to his extraordinary victory in Sao Paulo.
Max Verstappen (left) has survived a Mercedes appeal for a review in regards to his defensive driving against Lewis Hamilton (right) at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix last Sunday afternoon
‘Would I protest?’ said Horner.
‘Yeah, absolutely, if I believe the car is not in compliance. Mercedes’ straight-line speeds that we’ve seen in Mexico and in Brazil… everybody could see Brazil was not a normal situation.
‘Yes, a new Mercedes engine comes with increased performance. But when you have a 27-kph difference, and you see marks on rear end plates that have been marking up from wings that have been flexing…
‘It’s very clear to us what has been going on. It’s down to the FIA to make sure that the cars are in compliance. If they’re not, you protest.’
Verstappen (right) pushed Hamilton wide of track but the Red Bull escaped any punishment
Wolff countered: ‘We’ve been controlled 14 times on this particular wing. The FIA has all the drawings. There is no such thing as Red Bull expect. Nobody would show up at the track with an illegal engine or illegal rear wing. The world is too transparent for that.’
Fifteen minutes before second practice, Horner grabbed a quick word with FIA secretary general Peter Bayer. One imagines they were discussing more than the weather.
Back to the press conference which can be filed under ‘n’ for niggly. Horner took more bites. Wolff bit his lip.
Does any respect remain between the pair?
Horner: ‘There is no relationship. There is competition. We have worked hard to get into this position. This is the first time they have been challenged and it is interesting to see how people react.
Mercedes have called for a new review after on board footage emerged of the incident in which Verstappen forced his Mercedes rival off track at Interlagos
‘Relationships and respect are different thing. There is a respect for everything Mercedes have done, everything Lewis Hamilton has done. But I don’t need to go to dinner with Toto. I don’t need to kiss his a***. There are a few other team principals who might.
‘Am I going to be spending Christmas with Toto? Probably not.’ Turning to the Austrian he called a pantomime dame a few weeks ago, Horner said: ‘Unless you’re in the panto this year. I might take the kids.’
Wolff’s take on relations? ‘Olympic boxing went to pro boxing and is now MMA,’ he said, trying to characterise the escalating intensity with three rounds remaining.
‘The competition is just too high. You cannot expect that you are going to dinner with a rival, irrespective of the personalities involved. Nothing else would be normal. It is as simple as that.’
For the record, Hamilton was fourth quickest in both practice sessions on Friday; Verstappen first and third. It meant little, less than some of the words, in fact.