No sooner had the FIA issued Technical Directive 018-21 – which doubles the forces applied during ‘push down’ and ‘pull back’ tests to check that rear wing flex complies with the current technical regulations – than it became clear the controversy would reach a climax in Baku. Not only is today’s race the last before TD018-21 kicks in, but the ‘flexi-wings’ are most effective on the circuit’s 2.2-kilometer straight.
The matter became emotive in the aftermath of the Spanish Grand Prix, where Mercedes and Red Bull fired verbal salvos at each other. The FIA issued TD018-21 but, curiously, delayed its implementation until the French Grand Prix on 20 June, effectively providing two grands prix – Monaco and Azerbaijan – as grace period.
There are (unconfirmed) suggestions that the governing body was (understandably) cautious, preferring to delay the stricter tests rather than impose newly-designed rear wings for one of the fastest tracks on the calendar. In addition, a 20% tolerance has been granted during the first month after TD018-21’s introduction in order to provide sufficient time for teams to comply fully with the revised tests.
These decisions, though, gave rise to bewilderment in the paddock: The have-nots, principally Mercedes, do not accept that the haves (Red Bull) are permitted to continue racing with what they consider ‘illegal’ cars, and threatened protest action. Red Bull countered by alleging the front wings on Lewis Hamilton’s car moved about so much that a sponsor logo became obscured from view in certain camera angles.
Red Bull’s F1 consultant Helmut Marko put it succinctly, saying, “If one [team] protests, a chain reaction will result.”
The matter is widely perceived as being all about Mercedes versus Red Bull – particularly after the latter moved into the lead of both championships, the first time Mercedes has been headed simultaneously during the hybrid era. But in fact, it is about strict interpretation of the regulations, and not about their ‘spirit’ or ‘intention’.
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At least five (unnamed) teams – stretching down the order – are said to have wings that will not meet TD018-21, yet, crucially, they pass all current tests. The matter is best explained by equating it to lowering a speed limit from 60 to 50 on a stretch of road on a certain date: Until then it is legal to travel at the limit on that road; the next day it becomes illegal. A retrospective fine would not stand up in court, either.
Article 3.9.9 of the 2021 technical regulations empowers the sport’s governing body to ramp up its tests: “The FIA reserves the right to introduce further load/deflection tests on any part of the bodywork which appears to be (or is suspected of), moving whilst the car is in motion,” it states.
Thus, from this weekend through to the end of the season (at least) a series of yellow 10mm ‘diagnostic discs are mandatory on the wings to enable the FIA to monitor flex.
Crucially, should a team – Mercedes or otherwise – lodge a protest against ‘flexi-wings’, it would effectively be protesting not the target team but the F1’s technical regulations and their provisions, which were devised by the FIA in the first place. Thus, any plaintiff would indirectly be protesting the governing body’s regulations to the governing body’s stewards!
True, the stewards act as an independent body, but what chance them finding that cars that currently comply with prevailing tests are illegal? Appeals could follow, as could civil action, but the question remains: why would any court deliver a different verdict when the wings are legal through to a certain point in time?
After a terrible Friday in Baku – the two Mercedes placed 11th and 15th – team boss Toto Wolff dialled back on the protest rhetoric and appeared to accept that flexi-wings would be on his rival’s cars this weekend. True, Hamilton salvaged Mercedes honour by qualifying on the front row; equally, a series of red flags left the order jumbled.
Where McLaren, like Mercedes a vocal opponent of flexi-wings, had previously urged tough action against flexi-wings, the team has now left the matter up to the governing body. “I think the ball is in the court of the FIA to act as they think they have to act within the technical directive,” said team principal Andreas Seidl in Baku after qualifying.
The directive does, of course, stipulate an effective timeframe for the revised tests. That is where the matter is likely to rest, then after this weekend will come the aerodynamic reset. Whether the balance of power shifts in the process remains to be seen.
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