Title tussle heats up ahead of Hungary

The dust may have settled on the dramatic on-track action of the British Grand Prix, but Red Bull Racing is still ratcheting up the tension in this tightening title fight.

This article originally appeared in The Phuket News.

The rivalry at the heart of the 2021 Formula 1 championship battle is spilling over off the track.

Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s high-speed crash on the first lap of the British Grand Prix, putting the Dutchman out of the race and propelling the Briton to victory, has been the flashpoint of the season. Not only has it shrunk he points gap substantially — the mercifully unharmed Verstappen now leads Hamilton by just eight points, Red Bull Racing leads Mercedes by four — but the knock-on effects will be felt for the rest of the season.

It’s unclear whether Verstappen’s power unit can be salvaged after the 51G smash. Drivers get only three for the 23-race season, with a fourth carrying a back-of-the-grid penalty, which would almost guarantee points lost to Hamilton in the title fight.

And then there’s the cost of the crash. The team has put the price tag at US$1.8 million, or roughly 1.24 per cent of the newly installed F1 budget cap. That’s 1.24 per cent less to be spent on next season’s all-new regulations, which teams are now almost completely focused on to ensure they don’t start the new F1 era behind the pack.

Combined with the 10-second penalty dished to Hamilton that couldn’t prevent him from winning the race, it’s not wonder Red Bull Racing feels aggrieved, as Christian Horner wrote in an article on the Red Bull website.

“This was a moment of extreme pressure for Hamilton in the championship, becoming the hunter as opposed to the hunted, and in front of his home crowd who saw him defeated the previous day,” he wrote.

“Given the severity of the incident and the lenient penalty, we are reviewing all data and have the right to request a review. We are therefore still looking at the evidence and considering all of our sporting options.”

But he didn’t stop at intent, turning the blowtorch directly onto Mercedes.

“I am also still disappointed about the level of celebrations enjoyed in the wake of the accident,” he said. “The Mercedes team were aware of the gravity of the crash, with Max widely reported as having been hospitalised and requiring further checks.

“It is unimaginable not to inform your driver of the situation, moreover to protect your driver in case they do not show the necessary restraint in celebrating, particularly when it was as a result of an incident he was penalised for.”

But Mercedes boss Toto Wolff hit back. Speaking to Autosport, he said he had received confirmation from senior Red Bull figures as well as the FIA that Verstappen had been cleared of injury, giving short shrift to Horner’s barbs.

“At no point would we have celebrated if Max would have been injured. And I think that’s very important to understand,” he told Autosport.

“As far as the comments that were made, sometimes defamatory, sometimes very personal, I think everyone needs to do it their way. We just see it, but from my standpoint, there is nothing really to say to that.”

There is genuine animosity between the teams and their principals. Red Bull Racing has felt like an exiled champion since Mercedes took over the crown from 2014, and Mercedes has rebuffed requests for power unit supply in the past, purportedly for fear of the competition.

Horner’s hasn’t been afraid to stake his claim loudly and occasionally disingenuously — after all, he praised Verstappen for similar winner-takes-all moves on Hamilton earlier this year — and though Wolff has better kept his counsel, enough strikes will eventually find a weak spot.

Psychological warfare is another weapon in the teams’ armoury in this tight title fight. Expect it to be used as aggressively as the drivers race on the track.