“Truth, Noise, Botox and Formula One”

With four Grand Prix remaining in 2022, Max Verstappen has already claimed his 2nd World Championship crown.

Apart from the merest of blips, the Dutch racer has been as imperious, as Ferrari have utterly incompetent. Both elements played their part, but is the real story being played off track?

Even from a great distance, one could almost feel a sinking feeling of despair emanating from the offices of Formula One Management come the end of the Italian Grand Prix.

Such was Verstappen’s colossal advantage over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc come the end of the European season, the Red Bull man could easily have claimed the world championship title in Singapore. It didn’t happen there, of course – one of Verstappen’s few blips at a Grand Prix upended by changing weather and cool conditions – but he did take it the following weekend in Japan, albeit in bizarre circumstances.

And yet, where his 2022 title looked assured and certain, complaints about his first championship crown continue and – for once – the grumbling is not about the circumstances of last season’s closer at Abu Dhabi.
With rumours about a possible cost cap breach by Red Bull, hyenas, still upset from last year’s debacle under the desert sunset, began to circle with sharpened teeth. When it was confirmed following the Japanese Grand Prix that Red Bull had committed a minor overspend breach, those hyenas began to rub the paws together with glee.

In all the recorded outbursts concerning the cost cap, one could not help but get a whiff of Drive to Survive in the air – the lamentable Netfllix “documentary” series, which – if one is to be honest – bears a closer relationship to Married at First Sight than it does Panorama.
The show makes no bones about it though. It is “reality TV” in all its scripted excesses, while possessing all of the remarkable trappings of the unreal mixed with the implausible.
In many ways, Formula One and Netflix are perfect for each other. With Drive to Survive, Netflix possess an indelicate and epileptic psychodrama disguised as a modern documentary, that has opened doors for similar projects tailored for salivating sporting CEOs with prefabricated dirt waiting to be upsold.

Netflix has the money and the deals, although no one is sure whether syringe contains Botox or heroin, and few are willing to ask.

Drawing from the inevitable ripple effects of the Singapore revelations, every mouthpiece and their dog made themselves available for television interviews, if only to unwittingly announce in very roundabout ways that they knew nothing about auditing or accounting practices.
Whether they were aware of their own lack of knowledge is another question, but one suspects that if you wish to never learn about a subject in Formula One, one needs only listen to the talking heads to ensure nothing of value is absorbed.

Several claims generated much eye-rolling; others, meanwhile, were frankly laughable. In particular, the claim from Ferrari’s Team Principal, Mattia Binotto, that the top end of minor breach – $7.25 million – is the equivalent of gaining half-a-second per lap is the stuff such astonishingly fantastical bullshit, that only a professional bullshitter could possibly come up with it {note 1}. One could almost admire the audacity – almost.
It really is quite difficult to point out exactly where truth end and nonsense begins but suffice to say the former is present only in the form of sand particles blown in from Texan deserts. Alas, who needs truth and honesty when gripping headlines will do instead? As the Grand Prix weekend at COTA begins in earnest, an overspend figure of $1.8 million had been floated in media reports, although while the number is clearly important, what was done with it is key.

In the centre of this melee is the FIA. Having overseen the botched 2021 season finale, pressure is being applied to enforce a significant enough penalty for this minor overspend breach, so as to make the Cost Cap a meaningful device that has teeth.
But the governing body has not had a pretty ten months. Having acted with a bout of belligerence in the days and weeks after Abu Dhabi, the FIA drew away quietly to consider options and actions that would eventually see them largely absolved, while former Race Director Michael Masi was hung out to dry.

Naturally though, it goes beyond this. While it is tempting to imply the removal of Masi has calmed initial jitters, the criticisms of Race Control this year have not tempered, as every single decision comes under scrutiny. It was hoped that the arrival of Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas as interchanging Race Directors would remove some of the heat, but this has not been the case and – if one is to be realistic – that was never going to happen.

For a race – any race – to endure a wait of several hours to discover if race winner Sergio Perez would receive a penalty for a breach of safety car procedure (Singapore) – a breach easily identifiable by the data recorded live by Perez’ car – is unnecessary in the extreme and insulting to the fans, media and competitors.
More serious, however, was the befuddlement over the number of points on offer following the conclusion of the Grand Prix in Japan – a confusion that rendered all at sea as to whether Verstappen had won the title or not.

Even more astonishing than that was the accepted risk for competitor’s safety by allowing clearance vehicles trackside without a completely neutralised field.
Pierre Gasly, rightly, took criticism for travelling at excessive speed under red flag conditions (approximately 250 kph), earning a mere 20-second penalty for his troubles, but this should not excuse the brain fog from Race Control – a decision which appears to have cost Freitas his position as co-Race Director.

At a time when Formula One should be doing whatever it can to reduce the bombastic fumbling, the sport is doing what it can to swim in its own mire. With Japan an old memory at two weeks, background events at Texas are already overshadowing the US Grand Prix.

Through all this, the cost cap argument refuses to dissipate. There can be no worse result for the FIA than to be forced to impose a penalty on Red Bull that would change the result of the 2021 Driver’s Championship, but as one cannot truly follow the spend chain, it may be impossible to ascertain how the overspend may have altered the development path of the car, if at all.
If Verstappen were to retrospectively lose his first title due to the overspend, it would be a great shame, for his was utterly brilliant for much of the season; however, if the penalty is deemed too soft, then a precedent will be set and the Cost Cap will be dead in the water before it has truly worked its way into F1’s bloodstream.

Following some initial bluster Red Bull’s team boss Christian Horner, the Milton Keynes-based squad is reportedly engaging with the FIA in order to negotiate an Accepted Breach Agreement (ABA).
This is essentially a plea deal in which teams admit that they have committed a breach, allowing for lesser penalties to be applied, such as a public reprimand (utterly pointless), suspension from one or more sessions of a competition (most likely loss of FP sessions, qualifying or both) or additional limitation of aerodynamic or other testing beyond the limits already in place.

Should Red Bull decide not to accept an ABA and challenge the FIA’s findings – presumably with a view to reclassifying costs as listed in their accounting period – then a Cost Cap Adjudication Panel will be created to hear each individual case.
If found guilty in that, Red Bull can still appeal to the FIA International Court of Appeal; however, a loss of the case at this stage could cost Red Bull Constructors’ and Drivers’ championship points from their 2021 – the latter of which would almost certainly cost Verstappen his first title – and a reduction of allowable cost cap for the present season. Penalties from an ABA sanction can also be applied.

No doubt, the machinations of feverish accountants may one day get their own Netflix Drive to Survive-esque special, but for now, as Russell Crowe’s Maximus Meridius fearsomely announced in the movie Gladiator’, “Are you not entertained?!”

Actually, I’m not sure that I am.

{note 1}
Where? How? What circuit? Long circuit? Medium length circuit? Short circuit? Dry weather? Wet weather? Love downforce? High downforce? Medium downforce? What about air density? New development or minor upgrade? (Etc., etc., etc.)

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