Mercedes boss Toto Wolff has torched Red Bull Racing principal Christian Horner over allegations the championship-leading team cheated the cost cap while powering Max Verstappen to the 2021 title.
Allegations surfaced on Friday in Singapore that two teams were set to be found in breach of last year’s US$145 million cost cap, with various reports identifying Red Bull Racing and Aston Martin as the culprits.
Christian Horner responded via Sky Sports that the rumours were the first he’d heard of his team potentially being in breach.
“We are certainly not aware of any [breaches],” he said. “Certainly our submission was below the cap, and it’s down to the FIA to follow their process, which they are currently doing.”
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But Wolff blasted Horner’s denial, claiming it had been an open secret among the teams for months that Milton Keynes was being investigated.
“It’s funny that Christian says that, because it’s been weeks and months that they are being investigated,” he said. “Maybe he doesn’t speak to his CFO.
“As a matter of fact, all of us have been investigated diligently and as far as we understand there is a team in minor breach, which is more procedural, and another team that is fundamental and massively over.
“The rumour mill [has been] going since a while that they are over and they are quite a lot over. That’s not from some employees, but they’ve been investigated now for months.
“That is being still looked after, so that’s an open secret in the paddock.”
The breaking story caused an understandable furore in the Singapore Grand Prix paddock, and after refusing to be drawn on specific allegations earlier in the day, overnight Singapore time the FIA released a further statement calling for calm as it ran through its processes.
“The FIA notes significant and unsubstantiated speculation and conjecture in relation to this matter and reiterates that the assessment is ongoing and due process will be followed without consideration to any external discussion,” read the statement.
But the matter has cut particularly deeply for Mercedes, which was engaged in a close championship battle with Red Bull Racing last year, when the overspend is alleged to have occurred.
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One of the punishments available to the FIA in the case of a breach of more than 5 per cent of the cost cap is a points deduction in the drivers and constructors title or exclusion from the championship altogether.
The most extreme scenario could potentially see Max Verstappen stripped of his title or prevented winning the championship this year.
Wolff played down the chances of a title reversal, though he said he expected the governing body to levy a harsh penalty if the team were found guilty of a breach, particularly as benefits obtained in one year would likely flow through to gains in following seasons.
“I think it’s not up to me to judge and that’s not realistic, but I wouldn’t want to be in their position because of the impact it had over three years,’ he said.
“Even if it’s a so-called minor breach that can be below 5 per cent, you can spend $7 million more than everybody else, and that means is if this is a light penalty, we will all be pushing those 5 per cent more going forward.
“The crucial part is that if you have been over in 2021, then you have been over in 2022. That means you have an advantage into 2023.
“If it’s true they have homologated a lightweight chassis this year, they may use it next year.
“It’s really a cascade of events and that can be influential in all of the three championships.
“That’s heavyweight — massively heavyweight.”
Management of the cost cap has been a major logistical exercise for F1’s biggest teams, which in some cases had been spending more than twice as much as the current limit.
The bridge between 2021 and 2022 has been particularly difficult to manage financially given the major cost impost of the all-new technical regulations for this season.
Last year Mercedes openly discussed balancing sustaining its title campaign with developing its 2022 car under the new regulations and is understood to have ceased development of last year’s car earlier than Red Bull Racing.
Christian Horner recently told the Beyond the Grid podcast that he thought it was “remarkable” that Mercedes’s domination had come to an end this season “because they transitioned early, they made quite a noise about compromising last year‘s championship and moving over very early on to onto their 2022 car”.
Mercedes has been vocal in recent months about the constraints of the cost cap on its ability to turn around its poor form this season, but the team has acknowledged that restricting its ability to spend its way out of trouble is the purpose of the budget rules.
“We are using used parts. We are not running what we would want to run, we are not developing what we could be developing,” Wolff said.
“We have made more than 40 people redundant that are dearly missed in our organisation, and it was a huge, mammoth project to make the cap.
“I don’t know how many tens and millions we had to restructure and reprocess in order to be below the cap.
“If someone has been not doing that or pushing the boundaries, every million is a massive disadvantage.”
The Mercedes principal suggested that even a minor overspend would have a tangible on-track performance benefit.
“We have a pool of $140 million. If you’re spending 5 or 10 per cent more than everybody else, that’s many, many tenths of a second.
“We couldn’t reduce our overweight, which is double-digit this year, because we didn’t have the money to produce the new parts and put them on the car. It wasn’t there.
“You’re fighting a totally different league if you have been pushing the limit upwards.
“We know there is performance on the table for this year which we couldn’t bring. The same for Ferrari, as far as I understand.”