To acquire wisdom, one must observe

Raging bulls sweep in Suzuka

This weekend marks the end of the fall break for the Formula 1 2022 season. After a two-week hiatus from the cheering fans and sounds of the V6 (six-cylinder) turbocharged engines, F1 fans are looking forward to the season coming to the United States! But before the tires hit the tracks on the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, there is a lot to recap from the Japanese Grand Prix on Oct. 9. From Japan come two very different kinds of news: on the one hand Formula 1 fans are frustrated with the level of mismanagement and confusion when it came to the race in Suzuka, and on the other, all have become the peanut gallery to the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) as initial reports of the budget cap investigation are coming back from the 2021 season.

Problems in Suzuka

The Japanese Grand Prix began in the same way that most Belgian Grands Prix do—with massive amounts of rain. The track was covered in water and to most of the drivers, it looked like a swimming pool. For Formula 1 cars, water is a huge issue because just like the “normal” cars we drive on a more daily basis hydroplaning is a big concern. With the light weight of the F1 cars and the width of the tires the cars, unlike a normal passenger car, can act like a boat on even half an inch of water. So with water being the main concern of the drivers and their team strategists, all cars on the starting grid had their wet weather tires on. These tires, unlike clear condition tires, have deep ridges to allow for water to travel under the tires without pushing up on the car and causing hydroplaning. 

The cars approached the starting grid after a slow warm-up lap to inject heat into the tires. On the starting grid, Red Bull and Ferarri alternated spots in the first four positions. In pole was Max Verstappen in his Redbull, followed by Charles Leclerc (Ferarri), Sergio Perez (Red Bull) and Carlos Sainz (Ferarri). In sixth was Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes and in ninth was Sebastian Vettel in his Aston Martin. 

Going into the race Ferarri knew this was their last chance to stop Red Bull from driving away with the driver’s championship. If they could prevent Max Verstappen from winning the race then Ferarri would have a shot at slowing Verstappen’s lead. So when the lights went out in Suzuka, Ferarri knew what they had to do. Verstappen and Leclerc bolted out of the starting grid and entering the first turn it seemed like Leclerc would overtake Verstappen and leave him behind. But Verstappen was able to hold the outside of the turn and keep the lead in his possession away from Leclerc.

Unfortunately, the race never presented us with a challenge for the lead, but what happened behind Verstappen and Leclerc was a true nightmare for the drivers. After the first 10 turns of the race (components of the first lap still) there were two drivers who did not finish due to hydroplaning. Alex Albon lost control of Williams’ car and spun the tail of his car into the barriers. Likewise, Sainz was unable to control his Ferarri in the first few turns and lost his car into the track wall. More cars spun out due to hydroplaning and from Sainz’s crash debris flew onto the track and got caught by the front wing of Pierre Gastly’s Alpha Tauri car. Due to all of the issues on the first lap the race coordinators postponed the race for 10 minutes to allow the rain to settle and for the track to dry up a little bit. 

But race control in Japan made a major mistake when cleaning up from Sainz’s crash. They sent a crane onto the track to remove the car from the wall but did not inform the drivers as to the location of the crane. This led Gastly, whose vision was already reduced due to the debris he was going to have removed from his car, to come within inches of crashing directly into the crane. From his frustration, Gastly was recorded yelling at the race coordinators of the Japanese Grand Prix: “We lost Jules eight years ago in similar conditions, with a crane on track in the gravel. I don’t understand how eight years later, in similar conditions, we can see a crane. Not even in the gravel, on the racing line! It is not respectful to Jules, his family or his loved ones, or all of us. It was a dramatic incident. On that day we learned that we don’t want to see tractors in these conditions.”

This has led the FIA, the ruling body of Formula 1 and its lower divisions, to investigate the Japanese Grand Prix and work on implementing better rules during rainy conditions. But once the rain cleared the race was on again! Verstappen held the lead throughout the race but was followed closely by Leclerc and behind him Perez. At the last lap Verstappen was clearly the race winner but between Leclerc and Perez was a race for second. Perez was about to overtake Leclerc on the last turn when Leclerc drove onto the grass and out of the track to gain an advantage over Perez. However, due to this unsportsmanlike action, Leclerc was given a five-second penalty which advanced Perez to second place behind his teammate and now a two-time world champion of Formula 1—Max Verstappen!

FIA Budget Cap Regulation

However, Verstappen’s second title as Formula 1 World Champion was overshadowed by some very technical news from the FIA. For the 2021 Formula 1 season the FIA issued a budget cap for teams. The intention behind this action was to level the playing field between teams. Prior to the 2021 season, teams were allowed to spend what they had for money which gave great advantages to the larger teams such as Mercedes, Ferrari and McLaren which are teams who come from huge car manufacturers and have unconditional financial support from their parent organizations. This means that car development, testing and design all favored those teams with more resources to accomplish larger tasks. Then, for about a decade, smaller teams such as Williams Rocket Racing and Haas were unable to even compete with larger teams because they could not spend as much and because they were not winning races could not pick up sponsors as easily.

So, in 2021 the FIA placed a £114 million budget cap on each Formula 1 team. This budget cap came with degrees of penalties which are based on how much over the budget teams spent. Anything below a 5% overspend would be treated as a minor infraction and anything over that limit as major, with the FIA withholding discretion as to how these penalties would be issued. As of Oct. 20, the FIA concluded its investigation into Red Bull which was accused of going over the budget cap during the 2021 season. It was discovered that the Red Bull team had spent over the budget but did not cross over the 5% margin into the realm of major budget infractions.

Currently, the FIA is determining how Red Bull will be punished for their budgetary infraction and their decision will be released soon. This has shaken the Red Bull team, who now look towards the American Grand Prix in Austin with a very different attitude than they expected prior to racing in Suzuka. McLaren boss Zak Brown says Red Bull’s breach of the F1 2021 budget cap “constitutes cheating” in a letter written to the FIA. Brown went on further to even insist that Christian Horner’s team (Red Bull) should be penalized both financially and on track/during car development.

The implications of going over budget to any degree in Formula 1 can be quite important. Those who overspend by even a pound are given the advantage of more resources for car development and testing which can translate into further research which impacts future seasons. This is a huge blow to Red Bull’s momentum as a team that has won the Driver’s Championship for the past two years now. So with the eyes of F1 watching them remove the veil of spending on the Red Bull team, it is yet to be seen how fans and the FIA alike will view the Red Bull team going forward. Cheaters? Competitors? Or Liars? The Formula 1 world is waiting to make up its mind.

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