Azerbaijan GP: Mercedes and Red Bull's latest tit-for-tat a sign that F1 championship is heating up

Paddock sources say Lewis Hamilton is tetchier than he has been in a long time as he trails championship leader Max Verstappen

So the screw is beginning to turn and the niggle setting in at the head of a desperately tight Formula 1 world championship.

Lewis Hamilton could be forgiven for having that sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach after one of his worst performances in a Mercedes as he lost his mojo in Monaco.

And with it went his lead in the title fight to rival Max Verstappen who picked up an easy 25 points.

Paddock sources say Hamilton is tetchier than he has been in a long time and one timid reporter dared only one question of the sullen champion before changing the subject to Baku.

Together with his teammate’s bungled retirement Monte Carlo was a significant low for a Mercedes operation accustomed to easy dominance of F1.

So it’s no surprise tensions threaten to explode into the open this weekend in Azerbaijan.

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff warned he will protest Red Bull if they compete with the so-called ‘limbo’ rear wing, and vowed to take his claim all the way to the International Court of Appeal if he is not satisfied. Wolff is particularly concerned because the controversial wings will be especially effective on Baku’s 1.2km pit straight, one of the longest in F1.

In turn Red Bull chief Christian Horner accused Mercedes of hypocrisy, claiming their front wing is equally illegal. And effectively told Wolff to mind his own business.

“We want the FIA to clarify things before Baku otherwise it could be very messy,” insisted Wolff. It is no surprise to hear the Austrian describes himself as a “micro-managing control freak”.

Winner Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen celebrates after the Monaco Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Monaco street circuit in Monaco, on May 23, 2021. / AFP / POOL / Sebastien Nogier
Red Bull's Max Verstappen celebrates after winning the Monaco Grand Prix. AFP

The lingering threat is that a fascinating world championship – which is promising to be the best intra-team battle in many a year - will become a sideshow to shoddy political shenanigans.

And the title race could be left swinging in the wind, waiting on court wrangling over the busiest period in its history – four races in five weeks. Having finally put the rivalry back in being rivals the sport has also, sadly, returned the petition in competition.

The ‘limbo’ rear wing is so-called because, at high speed pressures, it leans back like a limbo dancer, making the car more svelte and therefore faster, only to pop back into place as the car slows for the corners.

The movement is barely more than a few centimetres but everything counts when the difference are often measured in hundredths of a second rather than tenths.

Few will regard it as a co-incidence Mercedes’ outburst came as they were turfed off the top of both championships for the first time in nigh on three years. Frustrating for Wolff, whose personal rivalry with Horner has as many layers as their drivers.

Perhaps he was genuine but he wryly congratulated Horner for being the youngest team boss to win four world titles - without needing to add "but I‘ve won seven".

Horner may have played second fiddle on the track for seven weary years but he was the one to snaffle Verstappen when he burst on the scene and is surely an extra thorn in the Austrian’s side as his exploding power division looks to steal an estimated 50 key engineers among their 350 recruits.

Wolff, in turn, maintains the annual threat of stealing Red Bull’s greatest asset: star turn Verstappen.

Of course some will see his actions as a justifiable protest, others as the desperate flailings of bitter champions losing their grip on top spot. Whichever, Wolff clearly does not appear it is a massive PR own goal. Or does not care.

Personal rivalries aside this latest tawdry episode is hardly a good look as fans emerge battle-weary from lockdown. The FIA has already made it clear tougher tests will be introduced after Baku to give the poorer teams time to adapt.

The tougher tests mean structural reinforcement by all but two of the teams, ironically Mercedes included.

Ross Brawn, in charge of all things technical in F1, is typically phlegmatic and confident the FIA rules can withstand, if necessary, Mercedes’ legal probing.

Much-missed former FIA boss Max Mosley, who died last month age 81, had the perfect answer to such a dilemma, warning public posturing is fine but frivolous legal challenges could result in punishments going up as well as down.

There is no question some are playing a dangerous design game because a flexing wing can ultimately break and any accident at 200mph would surely be catastrophic, if not fatal.

Meanwhile Verstappen and Hamilton are enjoying a brief respite from the spotlight with something of a bro-mance.

That won’t last, though. It’s only a matter of time before they clash on track amid the growing tension of a nerve-janglingly close title scrap.

But for now they can sit back and watch their team bosses setting a very dignified example for all.

Published: June 2, 2021 08:20 AM

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