On a weekend where Max Verstappen has his first opportunity to claim an inevitable second World Championship in the searing sauna of Singapore, perhaps it is time for his 2021 nemesis to join the winners circle in a year of otherwise unbridled frustration. What’s more, last year’s thrilling title race could take another twist yet.
To matters on-track first and while Lewis Hamilton had previously not topped a session – whether it be practice, qualifying or a Grand Prix – this year, he went fastest in first practice on Friday. He was also within range in fifth in FP2 later on to give massive cause for optimism for Mercedes, around a Marina Bay circuit which the seven-time world champion described as “epic” on Thursday.
F1 is back in Singapore for the first time since 2019 – the start of a Far East double-header which is followed by Japan’s return next week too – and with memories of his stupendous 2018 pole-sitting qualifying lap in his mind, Hamilton looked clean and assured on the 23-turn street circuit.
Verstappen, who celebrated his 25th birthday on Friday, was less than a tenth down on Hamilton in first practice but a front suspension issue later in the day meant he only went fourth-fastest in FP2, with Carlos Sainz leading the way in a Ferrari one-two with Charles Leclerc two-tenths off.
Yet while all the focus will return to matters on-track come the weekend – with Verstappen needing to win the race and outscore Leclerc by 22 points and team-mate Sergio Perez by 13 points to seal the 2022 Championship – speculation in the paddock on Friday concerned Red Bull and a potential breach of F1’s cost-cap measures which could, at its most severe, have an impact on Verstappen’s contentious maiden title last year.
Rumours are bound that Red Bull are one of two teams to have breached the 2021 budget cap of $145million (£114m), potentially by a five per cent figure which would equate to £7m. Aston Martin are, according to Auto Motor und Sport and Gazzetta Dello Sport, the other team at risk and while Red Bull boss Christian Horner stated he was “confident” in his team’s accounts, Mercedes CEO Toto Wolff was less ambiguous.
“It’s funny that Christian [Horner] says that because it’s been weeks and months they’ve been investigated,” he told Sky F1.
“Maybe he doesn’t speak to his CFO. Our understanding is that there is one team in a breach more procedural and one team way over [the budget-cap]. The crucial part is that if you’ve been over in 2021, you’ve been over in 2022 and then you’ve got an advantage in 2023. It’s a cascade of events which can be influential on all three Championships.”
Verstappen could win his second world title this weekend but rumours of Red Bull breaching cost-cap rules could spoil the party
(AFP via Getty Images)
The verdict from the FIA is set to be revealed on Wednesday, with sanctions ranging from financial penalties to a deduction of World Championship points. Verstappen, in controversial circumstances anyway, overtook Hamilton on the final lap of last year’s season-finale in Abu Dhabi to win the title by eight points.
“It’s not up to me to judge what the penalties could be,” Wolff added. “The judges have the scope to analyse but I wouldn’t want to be in their position because of the three years. They’ve [Red Bull] been investigated for months.”
Horner had earlier told Sky: “We are certainly not aware of any breaches. The accounts were all submitted to the FIA way back in March, so it’s been a long process with the FIA and we are in that process as we speak.
Toto Wolff says Red Bull have been investigated for months
“Next week is when they declare their certificates. Our submission was below the cap and it is down to the FIA to follow their process which they are currently doing. We are confident in our submission. There are always going to be rumours. I’ve heard of major breaches but I’m certainly not aware of that.”
In which direction this saga swings is up in the air but what is not is Verstappen’s 2022 coronation, whether it occurs in Singapore or Japan. But despite holding a 116-point lead with six races to go, the Dutchman’s crowning moment could be overshadowed if Red Bull are found to have breached new financial rules.