F1’s budget cap controversy has showed up the worst side of the sport

The budget cap saga has proved off-track F1 talk is bigger than on-track F1 talk which is never a good thing


When it was confirmed Red Bull had breached the budget cap, it was always going to polarise the paddock and Formula 1 fans, which has proved to be the case.

Red Bull broke the budget cap regulations in 2021. Fact. The FIA have investigated and laid out why Red Bull were in breach. Fact.

Overspending by £1.86 million and interpreting 13 points of the budget cap incorrectly is not a good look for any team, so you can understand the outrage.

Be honest with yourself though, when you read the FIA‘s findings, when all of the details were spilled ahead of practice for the Mexican Grand Prix, you probably already knew what you wanted to see in terms of a punishment before Friday.

In fact, myself and my fellow Total-Motorsport.com journalists explained what we would like to see happen a couple of weeks ago.

Finance is complicated in sport, especially F1 where there are thousands of factors in play to create and run two cars.

AUSTIN, TEXAS – OCTOBER 23: Max Verstappen of the Netherlands driving the (1) Oracle Red Bull Racing RB18 on track during the F1 Grand Prix of USA at Circuit of The Americas on October 23, 2022 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) // Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Whether you agree with the punishment or not, you have to give some credit to the FIA here.

Yes, they should have had it all laid out as to what penalties are given once they deemed Red Bull had breached the budget cap, but we have been given detailed conclusions of what the Milton Keynes-based team got wrong.

This is much better than what happened with Ferrari in 2020 pre-season testing when they came to a private settlement with the FIA regarding their suspicious power unit from the year before.

We all saw then that, whatever happened, it had a big impact on Ferrari‘s performance but we should have been told what the FIA discovered, just like we have here with Red Bull and the budget cap.

That’s a big positive and let’s face it, the FIA can’t win whatever they did.

Like Christian Horner said: “I’m sure if you burned our wind tunnel down it wouldn’t be enough [for some teams].”

The Red Bull team principal is absolutely right here, but most of what else he said is up to you to decide as to whether you believe it or not.

Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner at a press conference ahead of 2022 Mexican Grand Prix | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

It’s a team boss’ job to defend their team so Horner is absolutely doing the right thing here, and a lot of what he’s saying could have merit, as, again, finance if so complicated.

That said, a mistake was made, a big mistake and that should be punished severely.

Comparisons to other sport

There have been many comparisons to other sports from fans who have said something like, if you have cheated, or broken the rules in an athletics race, or whatever it may be, you lose your result.

This could be something as precious as an Olympic gold medal or a 34th place which nobody remembers. The consequence is the same though, you are stripped of your position.

It’s why some people believe Max Verstappen should have lost his title from last year because the breach was made in 2021, not 2022, 2023, 2024 or 2025 and so on.

What other sport punishes you for the future, rather than the time you broke the rules? Only in F1. It’s why some fans are not happy.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen celebrates winning 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the world championship with team principal Christian Horner on the podium | REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

Why has Verstappen not been stripped of the title?

F1 has a history of not taking away titles despite some controversial incidents. Think Ayrton Senna colliding with Alain Prost at the 1990 Japanese GP at high speed or Michael Schumacher turning into Damon Hill in Adelaide in 1994.

Of course, Schumacher was disqualified from the 1997 championship for his move on Jacques Villenueve in Jerez, but he finished runner-up that year, and Max Mosley had warned beforehand penalties would be imposed for such incidents.

The 2021 season was already highly controversial after collisions between Hamilton and Verstappen, then to top if all of, Michael Masi‘s actions at the Abu Dhabi GP which gave the Dutchman an opportunity to overtake his rival on the last lap, which he did.

Verstappen‘s title will forever be tainted which is a shame because he drove superbly and was arguably the better driver.

It seems the FIA don’t want to create more fury by stripping Verstappen of the title. Imagine what would happen then. Perhaps Red Bull would threaten to walk away from the sport, along with AlphaTauri, something F1 can’t afford.

You should never be allowed to negotiate your punishment in sport though and that’s a massive problem in F1, the teams simply have too much interference and it does feel like the governing body tries to please everyone when that’s simply not possible.

Is Red Bull’s punishment big enough?

So we’re now in the “it is what it is” part as Red Bull have been fined £6.07m, which must be paid before November 30, and will have 10 percent less wind tunnel time for the next 10 months.

F1 has a handicap system for wind tunnel time, so the best teams get less time to test the aerodynamics of their car in the following season.

Red Bull were meant to have 70 percent of the allotted wind tunnel time for 2023 as they are the constructors champions.

Here’s a numbers breakdown as to what that equates to for aerodynamic testing for the to three teams:

PositionTeam% of aero testingNo. wind tunnel runsNo. CFD items
1Red Bull632021260

You might think this won’t make a whole lot of difference, but in F1 terms it likely will.

Time in the wind tunnel is precious as it’s the main way to test the aerodynamics of a car, and with regulation changes for 2023, Red Bull will be hurt.

Horner says the loss in time will be anywhere between 0.25 and 0.5 seconds but it’s impossible to put a figure on how much Red Bull will be affected on the track.

More wind tunnel time doesn’t necessarily equate to more performance. If it did, the likes of Williams, Haas and AlphaTauri should be flying up the grid over the next few years. But that won’t happen.

Sergio Perez of Red Bull during 2022 Mexico GP practice | Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

Most of Red Bull‘s 2023 car will be ready to go with the teams now in the final part of designing and making next year’s machines to fit the new regulations which have been introduced to limit porpoising, we haven’t said that word for a while.

It’s 2024 where Red Bull could suddenly drop down the pecking order or, the second half of next season, if they are unsure about what upgrades to put on the car because of their aerodynamic testing limit.

Potential for more problems in the future

Given that the budget cap reduces each year, it would be no surprise if we’re in a similar situation in 12 months time when a team has breached the budget cap.

The teams always push the limits and the problem the FIA has is they have now set a precedent.

Is this bar high enough? Well, if another team has breached the budget cap, probably not because Red Bull‘s punishment should scare everyone else and should force them to double and triple check they have submitted their accounts correctly.

Sky Sports’ Martin Brundle asked Toto Wolff whether it was worth breaching the budget cap, only to get the penalty that Red Bull has been given.

Wolff didn’t give a direct no, which was interesting, but he brought up the word of reputation which, at least to Mercedes, is a huge factor.

“I think what you see is beyond a sporting penalty and a financial fine, it’s also reputation damage,” said Wolff.

“In a world with transparency, and good governance, that’s just not on anymore. Whatever team you are, you are responsible for representing your brand, your employees, your partners and that’s why for us it wouldn’t be a business case.”

Has F1 been damaged?

If you scroll on social media, you will see there is little to no room to have a proper debate or a constructive argument.

Just click on the comments of nearly any Tweet, Facebook post, Instagram post or TikTok that mentions Verstappen, Hamilton, Mercedes, Red Bull, the budget cap, or Abu Dhabi 2021, you name it, and you will see a sea of trolling, complaining or unhappy fans.

It’s not good for F1 and the details of this budget cap saga is too complicated for those who don’t know the ins and outs of the sport.

Ultimately though, as much as people will criticise the sport, F1 is still flying and is more popular than ever.

You will still tune in to watch those five lights go out on a Sunday, no matter what your feelings are about the budget cap or Abu Dhabi.

Unless everyone stops watching F1, this circus of endless politics and fans criticising the sport will just continue.

It’s nothing new, but in an age when more fans are watching and social media is a major part of everyone’s lives, this is just the start of an era where F1 will be polarised and that’s sad.

The fine details of this budget cap saga are fascinating, but everyone has made their mind up about it.

F1 will move on from this and look to the future, that’s what great teams and sportspeople do.

However, fans now simply have another story to throw into their never-ending arguments about the sport and it’s things like this which are beginning to take away from what F1 is all about – the racing and the drivers.

Off-track F1 talk is currently bigger than on-track F1 talk which is never a good thing.

Nigel Chiu
Nigel Chiuhttps://total-motorsport.com/author/nigel-chiu/
Nigel Chiu is an NCTJ-qualified journalist who worked at Total-Motorsport for 18 months until May 2023. He has been following F1 since 2007 and hasn’t missed a Grand Prix weekend since. Nigel’s worked with several motorsport websites, plus Eurosport and subsequently went on to work with Sky Sports F1 where he travels to multiple F1 races each season.
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