Voices: Red Bull’s punishment isn’t just unfair – it could ruin F1 forever

Today, the FIA proved to the world once again that they do not have what it takes to adjudicate over their own sport.

Red Bull Racing, found to be guilty by an FIA investigation of a “minor breach” of the budget cap last season, have been punished under the terms of an ‘Accepted Breach Agreement’ (ABA) with a $7m fine and a minor development penalty on next season’s car.

Red Bull fans have been quick to point out what they believe to be the key word – “minor”, meaning that the team overspent by 5 per cent or under of the total budget cap. Whilst this is easily written off for some, others (including myself) are not so easily distracted from the fact that this is blatant cheating.

A reminder: the budget cap for the 2021 season was a massive $145m, with this “minor” breach seeing Red Bull having used an extra $2.2m denied to other teams. It begs the obvious question – why have a cost cap if you can break it and face such minor penalties?

Now, within the wider context of the cash-soaked sport, it is a fairly menial sum of money by which Red Bull have overspent, but F1 is defined by the tightest of tight margins and milliseconds. Few will need reminding that Max Verstappen won the 2021 championship on the final lap of the final race by a little over two seconds. I can scarcely believe I’m having to spell it out, but in my book (and evidently and rather dumbfoundingly, not in the FIA’s), cheating is cheating.

Who knows how many hundredths of a second those extra millions shaved off that car’s times last season? Any competitive advantage gained by any extra spending should be scrutinised by the penny and punished under one clear and coherent set of guidelines.

Instead, we’ve been left in limbo, given only a rather vague list of potential punishments and the FIA stunningly allowing Red Bull to reach an ABA. And so the cheating team has been allowed to accept a more lenient punishment on the basis that they acknowledge they broke the rules. This is insane: it encourages teams to be dishonest to get themselves to the negotiating table.

I say we were left in limbo, we weren’t really – we all knew what was coming. Much of the last weeks’ discussion has been dominated by just how meek the response will be to this breach of the rules.

Another important point to remember is that ABA represents Red Bull’s admission that they did indeed overspend, something that team principal Christian Horner has fervently denied up until now. So, to get this straight, the FIA have conducted an investigation and found the team to be cheating, failed to punish them, before the team denied it and then admitted it (but only with the assurance that a lesser punishment will be doled out).

Aside from a rightful break from negotiations following the death of Dietrich Mateschitz last weekend, how bizarre is it that we have had to wait this long for the governing body to mull over a punishment. In what other sport would we see this? This could have been so black and white: you overspend, you pay the price with a heavy fine and the deduction of unfairly won championship points. Instead, we are left with no points deducted, no major fine and crucially, no clear deterrent to Red Bull or other teams that discourages future abuse of such an important rule.

Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton will of course be most upset, adding insult to injury with that controversial final lap in Abu Dhabi still fresh from last season. And remember in the Interlagos sprint race when Hamilton was penalised for having his wing 0.2mm over regulation? He was put to the back of the grid. Don’t get me wrong – I’ve no issue with this, if the rule states no larger than 85mm, then 85.2mm breaks the rules. Cheating is cheating.

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But as much sympathy as Hamilton and his team deserve from this ever-so-predictable scenario, it’s the sport as a whole that loses out the most with a call such as this. It goes back to the culture I discussed in an earlier piece: one born, bred and encouraged by the FIA’s lack of discipline – and teams will try to win at any cost.

In this instance, the benefits of Max’s title win very obviously outweigh the meagre $7m fine and 25 runs in the wind tunnel (instead of 28) they have received for breaking the rules; if every team knew they could get off this lightly, you’d bet the house that they would all take that chance.

This ruling marks yet another opportunity spurned for the FIA to truly stamp their authority with a just and fair decision. The sport will keep moving of course, taking another abominable kick to the teeth in its stride, as it always has. But it is tricky, and massively disheartening, to see a way forward long term, given that a blatant instance of cheating has been allowed to stand.