Mercedes, Red Bull and the war of words caused by inconsistent rule interpretations by the stewards

Mercedes and Red Bull might be fighting hard for Formula 1 supremacy on track, but tensions between the teams off the track continues to escalate.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff (L) and his Red Bull counterpart Christian Horner. (Images: Twitter)

Lewis Hamilton’s 101st Formula 1 victory at the Brazil Grand Prix this weekend should have brought about a jubilant feeling within his team. And to an extent, it did. Mercedes and Red Bull are locked in a tight battle for both the driver’s and constructor’s championship this year; this win kept the defending champions in the hunt going into the final three races.

Given Red Bull and Max Verstappen had won both the last two races, the Interlagos race was a must-win for the Silver Arrows. But the overwhelming feeling that one got after the race was of everlasting hostility between the two sides.

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff, never one to shy away how he feels, was in no mood to hide his feelings over how things went for his team this weekend.

“I think we’ve just had many, many punches in the face this weekend,” Wolff told reporters after the race.

“Decisions that could have swung either side against us or for us. It’s something that I’m just angry about and I will defend my team, my drivers to what comes.

“I’ve always been very diplomatic in how I discuss things, but diplomacy has ended today.”

Given Wolff is heading a team that has won seven straight world and constructor’s titles on the trot, it can be a little hard to drum up sympathy for either him or his team. But does he have a point in terms of the way the FIA dealt with their case?

Well, in a way. The team feels they have fallen victims not once but twice over the weekend to an inconsistency in terms of the rules and how they are interpreted.

The rear-wing controversy

The first incident came after Friday qualifying, when Red Bull launched a complaint with the FIA over the Mercedes rear-wing. This would eventually lead to Hamilton being disqualified and starting the Sprint from last place.

This was a double blow for the Silver Arrows; Hamilton was already on a five-place penalty for taking a new ICE unit this weekend. This made his task even harder.

Nonetheless he drove through the field to take fifth place, prompting Wolff to say “great job Lewis, f*** them all” over team radio after the Sprint ended. This betrayed the sense of injustice felt by Wolff and Mercedes.

Now, it is worth pointing out two things about Mercedes’ penalty. For one, the stewards agreed that the 0.85mm inconsistency on Hamilton’s car was not the result of anything the team did; thus, in effect, clearing the team of any cheating accusations.

However, they did argue that a punishment was necessary simply due to the fact that regulations were infringed. In this sense, the FIA were fairly inconsistent; a similar line of argument was used earlier this year when punishing Sebastian Vettel after the Hungarian GP, when his Aston Martin did not meet the post-race fuel regulations.

Where the inconsistency came – in Mercedes’ eyes – was that in previous such cases, a more lenient approach is taken. Often times engineers are permitted to work on a car’s damaged parts even after the cars are at Parc Ferme.

The stewards, however, argued that it was only done so in extreme cases, such as in the case of accidents. Right or wrong, Mercedes already felt angered by this.

Things were, however, set to get worse in the middle of the race.

The Verstappen-Hamilton incident – and why the ‘no penalty’ call was baffling

By Lap 48 of the race, Verstappen had been leading the race since the beginning; he had jumped Valtteri Bottas into the first corner itself. However, Hamilton was slowly but surely catching up to the Dutchman.

Coming out of the Senna Esses, Hamilton got DRS and was about half a car length ahead of Verstappen going into Turn 4. Verstappen, however, squeezed Hamilton off the track – running himself wide in the process.

Both Hamilton and Mercedes expected the Red Bull driver to get a five-second penalty, since there was precident for this. Yet while the stewards took note of the incident, they decided there was no investigation necessary.

Mercedes couldn’t believe it. While the FIA and Red Bull boss Christian Horner said it was about letting the drivers race, Mercedes argued that drivers had previously been penalised for squeezing others off the track.

In Austria this year, Lando Norris got a penalty for squeezing Sergio Perez off the track in a slightly similar move. Perez himself copped a penalty for doing the same to Charles Leclerc’s Ferrari.

The inconsistency is evident. And it was this that Wolff pointed out afterwards, saying that the lack of consistency was baffling.

“Whatever the rules are, if the rules say that’s on, which I would love to, that it’s on, then that’s fine,” Wolff said. “I’m not discussing the principle of hard racing.

“Hard racing is super, and should be on. But not when it’s been clarified before that you can’t drive somebody off the track.”

It was why Wolff pointed angrily at the cameras after Hamilton did finally overtake Verstappen. The Austrian later said it was a friendly hello to race director Michael Masi.

But the reaction, which became a meme on social media, was anything but friendly.

Why the Mercedes-Red Bull battle will only escalate

To make things worse – or better, depending on your outlook – the battle will not be simmering down any time soon. That is because Red Bull’s complaint was based not on the irregularity of the size that could be measured.

They believe that the Mercedes wing, when in motion, can open more due to it being a bit more flexible. This, in turn, would reduce drag and improve Mercedes’ straight-line speed advantage.

In essence, it is the reverse of the battle earlier this season, when Mercedes believed Red Bull’s “flexi-wing” gave it a bigger advantage.

Thus, depending on what the FIA does or doesn’t find, this little sub-plot has the potential to become more explosive with time.

But even without this, the title race is heating up nicely. Verstappen has a 14-point lead over Hamilton, which isn’t much given each driver can collect a maximum of 78 points in the coming races. In the constructor’s battle, meanwhile, Mercedes lead Red Bull by 11 points.

Neither lead is insurmountable at this point, meaning both teams will fight tooth and nail over the final three races. One way or another, this season is set for a thrilling climax.

Shayne Dias

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