Two races left. Two titles on the line. The on-track fight between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton is reaching its climax while off-track, the tension between Mercedes and Red Bull has continued and there’s potentially another legal row coming.
The off-track noise is taking up as much attention as the on-track battle. Politics and controversy are great fun in F1 but with only two races to go and just eight points between Verstappen and Hamilton the spotlight should be on this incredible sporting contest, not stewards’ hearings and threats of protests.
By the time qualifying starts under the lights at Jeddah, and the race begins, all eyes will hopefully be on the right part of this battle. But as Red Bull is convinced Mercedes has been doing something illegal with its rear wing, it was talking up the possibility of protesting.
The two positions are relatively clear. Red Bull’s now certain that when obscured from vision on track, part of the mainplane of Mercedes’ rear wing is bending on the straights and helping reduce drag. Mercedes says it has nothing to hide and everything’s legal.
A query’s been brought to the FIA already, a new test has been introduced, and Red Bull has sort of backed down – claiming (to Mercedes’ amusement) that this new test pegged Mercedes back in Qatar. It’s possible we’ve heard the last of this topic, but this weekend will be a big test given the high-speed layout of the new Saudi Arabian circuit.
There’s no problem with all of this happening. It’s an enshrined right of any team and if Red Bull has suspicions it should be able to pursue them. Hopefully this has been resolved already, though – holding back a protest to Saudi Arabia, or worse in Abu Dhabi, would put the end of the season under a huge cloud. It could even mean the championship gets decided in the stewards’ room or the International Court of Appeal.
This has been a titanic battle, one of F1’s great seasons, and an incredible two-team fight between two absolutely class drivers. If that ends in controversy, it’s not the end of the world. But what a shame it would be for the fight to ultimately be overshadowed by a controversy off-track. Nobody wants this being decided by lawyers. Especially as the two teams look very evenly matched. There are clearly different strengths and it would be naive to deny the Mercedes isn’t more potent on straightline speed in recent races.
The prevailing feeling at the moment is that Mercedes has its rear wing and rear suspension nicely optimised at this stage of the season and is exploiting the maximum benefit of the package, especially in conjunction with a fresh engine for Hamilton. Incidentally, Hamilton has his freshest engine – the one that got so much attention in Brazil – back in the car this weekend after using a higher-mileage and less powerful one in Qatar.
Whether Mercedes’ recent form has been achieved legally or not is down to the FIA to decide. Unless the FIA intervenes and says ‘Mercedes has broken the rules’ it would be wrong to declare Mercedes is cheating, just as it would be wrong to say Red Bull is being petty by raising its suspicions.
This is part of an F1 title battle. Teams go to extreme lengths to find performance and push the rules to the limit. If a rival feels they’ve gone too far then they are entitled to challenge it. Hard battles on track and off it add up to the drama. But when all is said and done it should be decided on-track. We have two fascinating fights in store for the two three races, with both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships on the line. Hopefully we can cut through the noise and get back to what matters most this weekend.