Is Formula 1 Biased Towards or Against Mercedes?
Toto Wolff claimed recently that there are areas of bias against Mercedes – does his argument have any validity?
For the last seven consecutive seasons, Toto Wolff’s Mercedes Formula 1 team have claimed both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ crowns without a sustained challenge. In that time, Wolff and his team have often complained that the decisions made by the FIA and Formula 1 are often intended to cause harm to Mercedes, making sure that they don’t stretch out too far ahead of their competitors. It’s a subject with which it’s difficult to sit on the fence and there’ll surely be a lot of people fighting both corners, so let me know in the comments which side you stand on.
In the turbo-hybrid era, Mercedes have regularly found themselves the subject of controversy with innovative gadgets that appear to exploit loopholes in the design regulations. In the most recent years, major disputes have included the dual-axis steering system and holes in the wheel rims to aid tyre temperature control, as well as the scandal surrounding customer team Racing Point as they mimicked the previous year’s works Mercedes in 2020. It seems that something has recently irked Wolff enough for him to suggest that Mercedes are being targeted by the general decision-making of the sport’s governing bodies.
To summarise the interview, Wolff stated that rivals Red Bull and Ferrari have been in charge of the rulebook since the turbo-hybrid era began, claiming that there have been clear, obvious actions aimed only at hurting Mercedes. Wolff suggests the decisions made by the governing bodies are not important for the sport and he will fight the rulings he deems unfair. The Mercedes boss goes on to say he would always vote against levelling the playing field and that F1 should always be a fair contest, but balancing the competition dilutes the spectacle and isn’t real motorsport.
It is unclear exactly what Wolff is talking about with regards to these ‘clear, obvious actions’, but the evidence suggests he hasn’t done his homework. Whenever any team in history has found a new level with clever innovations that nobody else possesses, rival teams and governing bodies have always grumbled and the inventions were often copied and/or outlawed. Whether it be Red Bull’s 2012 blown axle concept, the Brabham fan car, Williams’ active suspension, the ‘ground effect’ Lotus 79 or the ‘brake steer’ on the 1998 McLaren, whenever bespoke kit is introduced by a team to give them a considerable advantage, questions are always raised. Ferrari had their suspiciously strong power unit investigated and ruled illegal in 2019 upon protest from Mercedes and Red Bull, so the Brackley team are no strangers to protesting themselves.
The Brabham BT46B 'Fan Car' of 1978. Crazy, but innovative inventions like this are often outlawed, with teams often instantly gaining seconds of lap time on rivals with these unconventional technologies.
Every team will look for any advantage, noticeable or unnoticeable, major or minor, but the governing bodies are usually concerned that such inventions will impact the experience of watching Formula 1 and even be inherently unsafe. They want closely matched cars battling week-in-week-out on the global stage, attracting loads of new fans and investment and knowing that the best driver has prevailed at the end of the year. Anything that constitutes cheating or an ‘unfair advantage’ will be banned or altered. Unlike other cases of banned tech, Mercedes were not forced to give up their gadgets immediately, with DAS remaining on their car until the end of the 2020 season. The conclusion? Mercedes are no special case and they haven’t been treated differently to any other dominant team, perhaps even being more fortunate. Unfortunately, it comes with the territory.
There’s more to the argument than just banning gadgets, though. Wolff specifies obvious ‘actions’ as the reason for his qualms, so we must also take a look at some of the recent decisions that have affected the sport. Last season, engine ‘party modes’ for greater power levels in qualifying were banned, with each power unit supplier having to declare a set engine mode for use through qualifying and the race. Many saw it as an opportunity for other manufacturers to narrow the gap to the dominant Mercedes power unit, but in reality it made virtually no difference. It can’t be claimed that this decision was biased as it didn’t hinder Mercedes at all.
The engine 'party modes' used in qualifying were banned from the 2020 Italian Grand Prix, which still would've ended with a dominant win for Mercedes without their self-inflicted problems.
The change in regulations for 2021 reshaped the car floors in order to cut downforce at the rear by around 10%. It was believed at first that high-raked cars such as Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari would be hindered by this rule change, as it would be harder to seal the floor and create the Venturi effect that is crucial to the rake philosophy. The opposite has happened and it’s Mercedes that haven’t mastered the new rules, their W12 looking fundamentally unstable at the rear, though it did look a little better as they claimed victory at the season opener in Bahrain. This one screams sour grapes to me, as it’s really the first time Mercedes haven’t been on top of a regulation change for as long as I can remember.
Wolff has publicly stated that he dislikes the idea of sprint-race qualifying and variability as it goes against the values of Formula 1. I’m not sure he’s being totally forthcoming with that answer. Mercedes are at the top of the sport and the ideas being introduced by F1 create the one thing that leading outfits never like – uncertainty. It’s obvious that no team wants things to go against them, but to save the spectacle decisions like this are made to benefit the teams at the back rather than specifically to hinder those at the front. I feel that Toto Wolff can be contradictory, spending a lot of time grumbling about other teams dictating F1’s direction, as he looks over his shoulder at them without acknowledging the massive chip he has on it.
Penalties for their drivers don’t even indicate bias against them, either. If anything, an argument could be made to suggest they’re less hard done by than others. Several incidents like Lewis Hamilton entering the pits on the wrong side of the bollard at Hockenheim, entering the closed pitlane at Monza, a practice start from the wrong place in Russia and two identical collisions with Red Bull’s Alex Albon were all clearly significant offences and they were punished correctly. Perhaps with the exception of the Albon collisions, I don’t recall an admission of blame from driver or team in amongst their protests.
Incidents like the collision with Alex Albon at the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix have resulted in penalties for Mercedes drivers, but not without dispute by their team principal.
There are some key examples of recent controversial decisions actually favouring the Mercedes team. In Canada 2019, Sebastian Vettel was deemed to have rejoined the track dangerously and blocked Hamilton’s Mercedes after a mistake at turn 4. Vettel was given a 5-second penalty and lost the race win, despite having no reasonable means of controlling the car and preventing the incident. Max Verstappen was given a 5-second penalty for an unsafe release into Valtteri Bottas in the tight Monaco pitlane which eventually cost him a podium. Verstappen relied on his team for a signal to leave the pit box, so a fine for the team would’ve been a more suitable penalty than punishing the driver who was, really, an innocent bystander. Verstappen was also penalised in the opening race of 2021 in Bahrain, where he was deemed to have overtaken Hamilton outside of the track limits. Given it looked like Max was already ahead before leaving the track and Hamilton’s trips outside the track limits on the same corner almost 30 times through the race, I struggle to make a case for Mercedes on this one either.
The 2019 Canadian Grand Prix saw Lewis Hamilton take victory from Sebastian Vettel, despite the German taking the chequered flag.
The final conclusion, then? Mercedes and Toto Wolff are not hard done by, they are simply subject to the exact same decisions and debates that other teams have experienced while at the top of the sport. Rather than getting annoyed by every inconvenience then contradicting a previous standpoint, they ought to stop giving the media the chance to make them look stupid and keep themselves to themselves. It’s not only Wolff and Mercedes, to be fair, so that goes for certain others as well. Helmut Marko, Otmar Szafnauer, Cyril Abiteboul… I hope you’re listening.