MPH: Toto Wolff's Aston investment raises rivals' suspicions

Mark Hughes

The Aston Martin name will return to F1 next year... and the Mercedes team principal has invested in the company. What does Toto Wolff's stake mean? Mark Hughes has the answer.

Toto Wolff

DPPI

The news late last week that Toto Wolff was buying a £37.7 million stake in Lawrence Stroll’s £262 million consortium that owns a significant chunk of Aston Martin Lagonda raised a few eyebrows within F1. But it’s important to understand that this is not Wolff investing in the Racing Point F1 team that will carry Aston Martin branding from next season.

This is the team principal – and part-owner – of the Mercedes F1 team making a private investment in an automotive company that will have its branding on a rival F1 team next year. The two entities Aston Martin Lagonda and Racing Point are unrelated to each other as companies, but with one man – Lawrence Stroll – a shareholder of both. Wolff’s investment, incidentally, represents 0.95 per cent of Aston Martin Lagonda.

The deal comes at a time when teams are highly suspicious of the similarity between the current Racing Point RP20 and last year’s Mercedes W10

Wolff reports that the investment has the blessing of the Mercedes board. Mercedes itself has a small shareholding in Aston Martin Lagonda and supplies it with road car engines. Wolff has a 30 per cent share of the Mercedes AMG F1 team. The Mercedes AMG F1 team supplies Racing Point as a paying customer with engines, gearboxes and suspension pieces. Because Aston Martin Lagonda and the team currently known as Racing Point have a mutual owner, there will be some cross-branding of the automotive company on the F1 team, essentially a free sponsorship deal. But in principle it’s no different to if Stroll had still owned clothing brand Tommy Hilfiger and had rebranded his F1 team as Hilfiger F1. It wouldn’t mean Hilfiger owned the team; they would remain as two separate entities regardless of who owned them. As far as we know, Wolff owns no part of the Racing Point F1 team. But the car company in which he’s invested will have its branding on that team next year. So it’s quite a cosy and intricate arrangement but nothing out of the ordinary in business terms and totally within accepted protocol.

But what has so inflamed emotions within at least two rival F1 teams is that the deal comes at a time when they are highly suspicious of the similarity between the current Racing Point RP20 and last year’s Mercedes W10. In what is obviously a close working relationship between Wolff and Stroll, rivals are wondering if there is not some underlying agenda that could negatively impact upon them – and whether the RP20 is the embodiment of that agenda. Racing Point’s technical chief Andy Green makes no secret of the fact that the car has been inspired by last year’s Merc. But there would be a – very legally important – distinction between that and creating it from access to drawings, models or other materials owned by Mercedes AMG, which Racing Point insist has not been the case.

Before the virus curtailed the season, there were murmurings that either Renault or McLaren would officially protest the Racing Point. If the season ever gets started, it will be interesting to see how competitive the car actually is. Winter testing suggesting that it was probably the fastest of the midfield – marginally from McLaren and Renault – but still set to be lapped by Mercedes, Red Bull and Ferrari.

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For reference, in qualifying last year around the same Barcelona track at which pre-season testing was conducted, Mercedes was 1.893sec quicker than Renault, 1.932sec quicker than McLaren and 2.48sec quicker than Racing Point. If the Racing Point RP20 really is a pink Mercedes W10 and has found almost 2.5sec over last year’s RP19 but the latest Merc, Ferrari and Red Bull can still put it a whole lap down over a race distance (which is what testing suggested), then everyone has made huge gains. Which doesn’t quite tally. But if the RP20 proves more competitive than testing suggested and is capable of mixing it with Ferrari and Red Bull, well clear of the midfield, then it would look slightly more suspicious.

This behind-the-scenes controversy is happening amid urgent discussions about how to prevent teams going out of business from the economic repercussions of the virus lockdown. One of the suggestions put forward by Red Bull’s Christian Horner last week was that F1 might abandon its insistence that every team be a bone fide constructor – and instead return to the days when teams could simply buy last year’s cars from a bigger team. His suggestion was Haas and Alfa Romeo could buy the previous year’s Ferrari, Red Bull would supply its previous year’s car to Alpha Tauri and Mercedes could deliver its old cars to Racing Point. Which would leave just Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Renault and Williams as constructors.

Everything is up for grabs right now in these uncertain times. Hence the suspicion and paranoia.

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