F1 heads Stateside as Red Bull’s cost cap cloud continues to darken Max Verstappen’s title win

Thomas Maher
Max Verstappen waving as he is surrounded by photographers. Japan October 2022

Reigning World Champion Max Verstappen waving as he is surrounded by photographers. Japan October 2022

Max Verstappen is a two-time Formula 1 World Champion as F1 heads to Austin, but his achievement has been overshadowed by the news that Red Bull committed a budget cap breach during 2021.

In what was one of the most underwhelming title confirmations ever in F1, Verstappen clinched his second consecutive title after a stellar drive last time out in Japan.

Having been beaten off the line by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, Verstappen held his nerve around the outside of the first two corners to retain the lead and, from there, romped away by an average of a second a lap – coming home half a minute clear after half a race distance.

However, even with the five-second penalty that was applied to Leclerc after the chequered flag – the title wasn’t secure. At least, that was until the FIA confirmed the race had been a full points affair due to the strange wording of the rules regarding how the race had finished with a chequered flag, rather than a red flag.

Thankfully, for the FIA at least, there was never really any doubt about Verstappen wrapping up the title at some point during these final races of the season. One can only imagine the controversy had the full points rule had an impact during a race that could have affected the outcome of the title – a further indication that the FIA still needs to improve the wording of its own racing laws.

However, the controversies in Japan didn’t end there. On-track, unwelcome memories of the tragic 2014 race came flooding back as a recovery vehicle was sent on track while cars were still circulating at speed. This led to the scary sight of seeing Pierre Gasly powering past a tractor on the circuit, with his onboard camera showing just how poor the visibility was – at a corner where, moments before, Carlos Sainz had aquaplaned off the track to cause the wreck requiring the tractor!

An investigation into this particular incident has been vowed by the FIA, but it was the governing body’s investigation into the 2021 budget cap thresholds that has been the main talking point of the past two race weekends.

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, on the full wet tyres. Japan, October 2022.
Max Verstappen, Red Bull, driving his RB18 on the full wet tyres. Japan, October 2022.

Bound to a $145 million spending limit in 2021, the first year of the newly introduced Financial Regulations, the rumours that Red Bull had overspent became fact on the Monday following Suzuka. Seven of the 10 teams were issued with their ‘compliance certificates’, but three teams weren’t: Red Bull, Aston Martin, and Williams.

The latter two stayed within the $145 million but carried out a procedural error during the returns process. They’ll be punished in some shape or form, but it won’t be as scary as what Red Bull face. The championship leaders carried out a procedural breach, as well as being found to have committed a ‘Minor Overspend Breach’ – this means they overspent by less than 5% of the cap, meaning a figure somewhere between $1 and $7,250,000.

While this may seem like a storm in a teacup for a sport as flush with cash as F1, the fact the currently leading team in the sport carried out the breach has a seismic impact on how this is treated.

The fact is that Red Bull overspent, and breached a rule. However, this rule isn’t a Technical Regulation, and the car they fielded on track remained completely within those regulations. It’s an unprecedented issue to encounter that, and Red Bull’s defence has been that there are grey areas, open to interpretation, regarding the spending that falls under the budget cap and the spending that doesn’t.

Like in any financial investigation, the discussions and investigations will rumble on and on. It’s a clear indication, as borne out by the occasionally vague wording evidenced in the Sporting Regulations (a much older rulebook than the Financial Regulations), that the governing body appears to have left loopholes open for exploitation – the question mark now is how hard they’ll come down on Red Bull for what the team are adamant is a legitimate return.

The FIA are also caught between a rock and a hard place. Coming down hard on Red Bull, punishing them in any way that strips them of the ’21 title, means the sport is placed in a ludicrous position where the outcomes of titles on track can’t be certain until months after the season ends. Coming down too leniently could mean the teams view Red Bull as getting off ‘scot-free’, and open the door for more nefarious overspending in the future.

Unfortunately for Verstappen, whose mastery of the 2022 season will now be questioned by those who are reluctant to give him his due, the furore has exploded right as he heads to his first race to celebrate his title win. Rather than a season of utter dominance and near-perfection being applauded, instead, most of the conversation will centre on Red Bull’s accountancy practices.

Four races remain this season, and the Dutch driver has the chance to match the record for most wins in a season this weekend. Having won 12 already, victory this weekend would tie him with Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel for 13 wins in a year – and who would bet against him beating that by Abu Dhabi?

Verstappen is likely to remain very tight-lipped about all the budget cap-related shenanigans during the weekend, as Red Bull will face intense questioning from the media over the matter – the subject will no doubt be picked apart endlessly by other team bosses and representatives as they plead their cases for the severity of the punishment Red Bull should face once the matter shakes out.

This weekend also marks a year since what was arguably Verstappen’s finest drive in 2021, as he went wheel-to-wheel with Lewis Hamilton into Turn 1 – losing out to the seven-time Champion. But Red Bull pulled off one of their infamously aggressive strategies, pitting Verstappen earlier than Hamilton and employing the undercut to gain track position. This meant having to deal with some intense pressure from a faster Hamilton near the end, but Verstappen held his nerve to win by just over a second to increase his points lead to 12 with five races left.

Red Bull's Max Verstappens wins the 2021 United States Grand Prix. Austin, October 2021.
Red Bull's Max Verstappens wins the 2021 United States Grand Prix. Austin, October 2021.

COTA won’t get a race with that level of high-stakes tension this year but the circuit, which is celebrating a decade on the F1 calendar this weekend, usually provides entertaining races thanks to the compromising nature of the twisty first and third sectors mixed with the fast and straightforward second sector.

Last year’s tete-a-tete could be replicated by Verstappen and Leclerc this weekend, although Ferrari’s recent struggles with tyre life have meant their race challenges have faded. Mercedes, too, still don’t appear to have enough outright performance to really take the fight to the front without extenuating circumstances coming into play. The weather forecast suggests hot and sunny conditions, so it’s difficult to see anyone but a Red Bull driver taking the victory this weekend.

The threat of Mercedes to Ferrari over second place in the Constructors’ Championship has also faded, with the points gap now up to 67 points with four races remaining. Within the top three teams, the main battles to watch are now Leclerc vs. Sergio Perez for second place, as well as whether Lewis Hamilton can claw back further ground on George Russell and elevate himself from sixth place in the Drivers’ Championship.

After the massive points swing in McLaren’s favour in Singapore, the momentum swung back to Alpine in Japan as they clinched fourth and seventh place – the A522 proving a competitive beast at Suzuka. COTA’s characteristics aren’t a million miles from Suzuka’s, and the to-and-fro battle between the two teams over fourth place looks set to continue this weekend.

With the title fight wrapped up, 2022 has largely been a respite from the constant backbiting and outright hostility of the ’21 season. But the budget cap dramas look set to re-ignite some of that and, at this point, Red Bull must be wondering what must they do in order to finally be able to put the ’21 season behind them. Unfortunately for them, their fight isn’t just with Mercedes now – their stance is at odds with the governing body itself, and support of their position isn’t likely to be forthcoming from the teams in conformity.

Read more: FIA must come down hard on Red Bull, but championship DQ is unfair