F1 needs secret ballots – but they won’t eradicate all opportunities for collusion

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On Thursday afternoon McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown published a treatise on his team’s website in which he both praised Formula 1’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic and urged the F1 collective to make certain changes to its modus operandi in the hope of delivering a fairer and more sustainable spectacle.

“There have even been instances when an affiliated team, to satisfy its bigger partner, has voted in favour of a clear disadvantage to itself,” he wrote. “This isn’t sport. This isn’t putting the fans first. It is a situation that must be addressed, and so we call for secret ballot voting [so teams could vote anonymously] to be implemented in all F1 Commission meetings with immediate effect.”

Although McLaren procures power units (only) from Mercedes – as opposed to, say, Aston Martin, which purchases full powertrains and last year extensively copied Mercedes’ 2019 car – the Woking-based team stresses that it is an independent constructor without allegiances, having operated thus since its founding in September 1963.

Brown’s open letter was discussed during Friday’s FIA press conference featuring several top team bosses. Most questions focussed on his call for secret ballots during regulatory voting. Yet, the processes followed are simply symptoms of potentially far wider abuses, namely collusion between teams who are linked, either directly via common ownership, or indirectly through commercial and supply agreements.

Cars, Autodromo do Algarve, 2021
Brown raised concerns over ‘alliances’
While there are no suggestions that collusion currently exists, there are few doubts that given current team alliances a system of secret votes would reduce the potential for teams to support major teams to their own detriment. These alliances are Mercedes with technology customers Aston Martin and Williams; Ferrari and its customers Alfa Romeo (Sauber) and Haas; and Red Bull with junior squad AlphaTauri.

Team bosses (and drivers) vehemently deny that they voted (or drove) against their best interests – but then they would maintain that, wouldn’t they? But political pressure can be a great debt leveller when times are tough, as they often are at the back of the grid. Historically some voting outcomes had been utterly predictable, and played out accordingly. Clearly alliances had played their parts during the process.

“We’ve seen certain situations in the past, ones that [Brown] referred to, where some teams seem to be voting against their own interests, and that’s not good for Formula 1,” said Alpine executive director Marcin Budkowski. His team, he stressed, has no such alliances nor, indeed, any engine customers.

“We need to keep the balance right if you want and you can’t have teams voting against their interests because of affiliations, as they call them,” he added.

Indeed, a secret ballot process – which would enable teams to vote for their best interests without being identified – already exists. But it has seldom been triggered despite being available to teams upon request.

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“The secret ballot option is in the governance, has been in the governance for a long while,” confirmed Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies, a former FIA employee. “It’s just a fact that perhaps we didn’t use it very often or certainly in the last few years we haven’t done so. It’s good to be able to use it.”

Column: “Things may have happened below our radar”: Why the FIA needed new powers to keep F1 teams honest
Budkowski, too, is supportive of secrecy: “As an independent team we actually don’t have an issue with other people seeing what we are voting for because our positions are clear and well known to the FIA, F1 and the other teams. [We support secret votes] not because it’s going to change anything for us but because we believe every team should vote in their best interests, what’s best for them.”

That leaves Mercedes, and its associated teams, and the Red Bulls. Surprisingly to some, both spoke in favour of secrecy, albeit with some preambles. The former’s team boss insinuated that AlphaTauri votes in favour of Red Bull and added “Haas has gone the Ferrari way.”

“In our case, we have never tried to influence a team,” Wolff stated, adding: “Obviously things have been discussed when it was a common topic, like on the power unit.”

Christian Horner was more succinct: “It would be a shame to need to go behind a secret ballot – but a team has a right to request that. But if that’s what it needs to [obtain] independent votes, then we don’t have a major issue with it.”

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That would appear to be it, then, what with all major players being united on this front albeit with some reluctantly agreeing to secrecy. Accordingly, there should be no reason for open votes in future. But secrecy is not the answer to all potential situations; it can be quite the opposite, in fact.

Russell considers Mercedes pair his “team mates”
Concerns about team alignments has been brewing for a while now, with the latest spat involving Red Bull and AlphaTauri, said to have voted as a block during last week’s F1 Commission meeting against plans to introduce possible sporting penalties – such as grid place drops or points deductions – for breaches of the financial regulations.

“A large group of teams, seven out of 10 teams, voted in favour of introducing sporting penalties for financial cap infringements,” Wolff said on Saturday.

“At the moment, there are only financial penalties. And three teams voted against it, saying ‘We’ll take a financial penalty, but we don’t want to have a sporting penalty.’”

The third team to have voted against the proposal is believed to be Ferrari – which suffered enormous pain during the transition from open budgets to the $145m spend limit introduced this year – although its two satellites did not support their supplier’s stance, being well below the cap.

Red Bull, too, was forced to cut back ahead of this season, which sees it as odds-on favourite for both titles. Any sporting penalties would clearly hurt this quest, but AlphaTauri operates well below the cap – which had been long supported by team boss Franz Tost. This raises questions as to whether his crucial vote – seven out of 10 was the tipping point – was used to protect the sister team. Hence the unhappiness in the Portimao paddock.

Co-operation between teams can extend well beyond regulatory matters, and could potentially be used to, for example, provide sporting advantages – as the fall-out from the George Russell-Valtteri Bottas accident a fortnight ago illustrates. The former, a Williams driver, spoke with Wolff following the collision, and this week stated that he views the Mercedes racers as “team mates as Nicholas [Latifi] is.”

Taken to extremes – and F1 is an extreme activity – this could be taken to imply that Russell is prepared to compromise his own race to aid the Mercedes duo should he be in a position to do so, which could in turn be interpreted as race fixing.

The potential for undue technical co-operation, too, is a concern – as outlined here. With F1 being totally data-driven and teams sharing modelling software the slightest hints between allies could translate into enormous gains in lap time, yet the conversations could be totally undetectable.

Secret ballots are a step in the right direction, but in real terms they are no more than a scratch on the surface.

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21 comments on “F1 needs secret ballots – but they won’t eradicate all opportunities for collusion”

  1. So Mr Brown wants participation and power, but no accountability.

    How predictable.

    1. That is a preposterous line. If anything, this is about the biggest teams pushing their affliates to do things they would not choose to do if they were free to make that choice @proesterchen.

      If anything, you could take it as a clue that Brown is wary about any possible future pressure from his own engine manufacturer to do things against his own teams best interest. Who knows, maybe he has already felt that kind of pressure.

  2. I am not convinced a secret ballot system will work in F1 simply due to the small number of participants in it. It could only work if all the teams kept their opinions secret as well (this will never happen) so you would have no idea how teams voted. But because they all discuss ideas publicly, you can almost always work out teams positions anyway and if this doesn’t correlate with the results you could almost always identify who changes their mind which just creates mistrust. You would need 20+ participants before you would struggle to be certain of how participants voted.

    Where I work, we have surveys where you are asked about your line manager but the results only get shared with the line manager if 10+ people report to them to try and remove the chance for the line manger to identify who said what. Same theory applies here.

    1. That certainly is a valid point @chimaera2003. I think hardly anyone would really be in the dark between the people within the teams on most votes in practice.

  3. Isn’t the question really what the teams get to vote on in the first place? I mean the regulations need to make sense and be doable, but after that it should be up to the governance to set up the competition. Teams shouldn’t be voting about their own penalties, or generally anything where they can give themselves an advantage or each other. This F1 Commission thing is a bit misguided, it seems to me. FIA and Liberty have plenty of ex-team people these days anyway.

    1. ian dearing
      2nd May 2021, 11:20

      Given who presented it I expect Liberty’s fingerprints are all over it.

  4. Wolff is a hypocrite when he says that he doesn’t seek to influence other teams. The article points out he has recently done so telling Russell, a driver of another team, to not overtake a Mercedes.

    1. Agreed. Very dubious when the driver manager is a team manager from another team.

    2. Yes, that is exactly why it is rightly pointed out in the article.

  5. @zann I think on the technical side it makes sense to have the teams involved as the vast majority of the expertise works for the teams so their opinions should be sought.

    I can see your point on the sporting side, however in other US sports the teams have significant power over the rules so culturally with Liberty they may accept it. Also Liberty will want to ensure the teams are happy since there is not exactly a conveyer belt of new teams ready to jump on board if they disagree and threaten to start their own series.

    1. There could be many more teams interested if only they stopped pandering to the ones already there.
      What does a $200m anti-dilution fee tell potential newcomers?

      1. “could” is the issue with this idea. Liberty are not going to risk a multi-billion dollar investment by rocking the boat too hard, risking the main attractions leaving and hoping that multiple benefactors with $200m+ burning a hole in their pockets will pick up the slack unless they are certain it will work.

        I agree on the $200m anti-dilution fee being silly (it smacks of anti-competiton similar to the proposed ESL) but I bet they needed to do it to get their far-reaching proposals over the line. If it guaranteed participation for the next 5-10 years (i can’t remember the length of the deal) to help on the return on investment then it may have been a necessary evil from Liberty’s perspective.

  6. Wouldn’t make any difference if they were voting secretly.
    They all know beforehand what they are voting on, who benefits and loses from each outcome and which way they need to vote to ensure they/their masters are satisfied. Aston Martin isn’t going to vote against anything that helps Mercedes, just as Alpha Tauri will never vote in a way that harms Red Bull.

    If they want to end any chance of collusion, they need to work a lot harder than that.
    There are a whole range of things they can do. But they won’t.

  7. So instead of having the courage to confront their partners and tell them to mind their own business, they are calling for a secret voting system. It won’t work anyway as RaceFans (Dieter) will know anyway who voted for what and then they will be in a bigger trouble with their partners :)

  8. @dieterrencken – What a pleasure it was to watch you get so under Wolff’s skin that he refused to answer! Please keep up the great work, keep making the powerful uncomfortable.

    1. ian dearing
      2nd May 2021, 14:11

      I got more pleasure from watching Brown pretend that he couldnt hear the perfectly asked question twice, and then gave a completely different answer to the question he clearly did hear in the first place.
      Although I’ve noticed most drivers/TPs, etc give glib one word answers when they are presented with a typical Ted 500 word questions.

  9. F1oSaurus (@)
    2nd May 2021, 17:22

    What nonsense.

    Of course McLaren is in too poor a shape and lost their B-team affiliation so they now complain about others who do. When we all know they made sure their B-teams voted with them in the past.

    Secret ballots is going to help nothing either.

  10. F1oSaurus (@)
    2nd May 2021, 17:27

    I also don’t get the outcry over Wolff saying that Russel should not be taking too much risk when overtaking a Mercedes car. He’s part of the Mercedes family who’s on loan to Williams for 3 years. he drove one of their cars. So yeah he’s pretty much a team mate with Bottas.

    Besides, you see all Red Bull cars working together too and Ferrari affiliated teams also made sure not to hold up a Ferrari. At least before Ferrari were caught cheating and ended up on the back half of the grid themselves.

  11. Jockey Ewing
    3rd May 2021, 1:07

    So they had a secret ballot.voting about the consequences of a cost cap breach (seemingly as they are trying to guess which teams voted with no).
    Meanwhile they not really used this format in the recent years. Entertaining by itself.

    I agree, if there are only 10 voters casting their votes, one’s votes are not hard to guess, after a lot of public debates.
    But still, it is easier to vote against the A-team. Even 1 votes towards a better direction is better than 0 votes towards that.

    If they want to it to be less guessable, and to come up with fairer or changing set of rules, they could give more entites the right to cast their votes. Like some kind of senior stewards, leaders of the GPDA, some kind of independent engineering comittee with a few members (this could be formed from top engineers even from outside of motorsports, or at least independents from F1, or from the teams, probably a member pool, of which only some casts heir votes, randomly selected, or their name kept in secret, or some other feature to reduce their “approachability”). This way the number of the entites which can cast votes could reach 20, so it would be harder to guess, and it could reduce the power of the financially strong entites.

    1. Jockey Ewing
      3rd May 2021, 11:21

      Huh, entites instead if entities 3 times in a row. Gj!

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