Christian Horner can't blame Mercedes for outsmarting Red Bull

F1

Red Bull boss Christian Horner reportedly said that Mercedes' new 2022 car isn't in the spirit of F1's rules. But the absurd accusation only reflects badly on him, writes Andrew Frankel

Christian Horner at 2022 F1 Bahrain testing

With VW looking likely to link up with Red Bull in some form, Horner has already been beating the drum in support of the agreed concessions to new manufacturers

Giuseppe Cacace/AFP via Getty Images

Before I start, it’s important to state that I don’t have an angle here. I am neither a Mercedes-AMG nor a Red Bull man. If I have any allegiances within the world of F1 they are to Ferrari, and then only because there were red racing cars all over my bedroom walls when I was a child, and try as I might to ignore it, it’s rather ingrained in me.

Indeed I am one of perhaps a minority of F1 fans who thinks it would have even less fair for Lewis Hamilton to have been world champion last year than Max Verstappen; because if we can prise our eyes away from Abu Dhabi for a moment and look at the entire season that makes up said championship, with no one race any more or less important than any other, Red Bull suffered far more Mercedes-inflicted bad luck than vice-versa. As if fairness had anything to do with it.

But the truth is that had Lewis and Max not come together at Silverstone – resulting in a trip to the winner’s rostrum for Lewis and hospital for Max in an incident for which Lewis was adjudged predominately if not entirely to blame, and had Valtteri Bottas not effectively taken out the entire Red Bull team in Hungary, in an incident for which he was 100% to blame, Abu Dhabi would have been a dead rubber game because Max would already have been champion. And, yes, you can look at the iniquities of that race, and the absurdity of Spa and point out both went Max’s way but they were the faults of the authorities, not Red Bull drivers and in any event Max lost far more points through events beyond his control through the season than Lewis.

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But Christian Horner’s assertion that the Mercedes W13 sidepods were not within ‘the spirit of the rules’ is palpably absurd. Some will point out Red Bull had denied he said as much to the vastly respected Auto Motor und Sport journalist Michael Schmidt, but having first said there had been no comment about the Mercedes, the Red Bull PR machine later clarified its position saying there had been “no official comment”, which is not the same thing at all. So it seems clear to me that Horner was accurately quoted.

I’m not saying for a moment that one constructor should not point out and object to another fielding a car it believes to be illegal. But to say it’s not within the ‘spirit’ of the regs? That won’t wash. Regulations don’t have spirits and of all the teams on the grid, Red Bull should know that best employing, as it does, Adrian Newey whose genius for interpreting regulations to his team’s advantage is surely unrivalled.

For is that not the game? It must be self-evident that every technical director should give the regulations as thorough an examination as possible and create the fastest car possible within them. Indeed it is nothing less than their jobs to go through the rules line by line and stretch them, bend them, pummel them and squeeze them until the pips squeak in their search for a competitive advantage, so long as they do not actually break them.

Mercedes W13 of Lewis Hamilton in 2022 F1 Bahrain testing

Mercedes not ‘the spirit of the rules’, said Horner

DPPI

Adrian Newey and Christian Horner

Horner with Newey at the first 2022 test in Barcelona

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If the Mercedes is deemed legal and if it blows the rest of F1 into the weeds as a result (despite its drivers’ downplaying that possibility) Horner can have no complaint with its rival. If he has any beef at all, it is with the rule-makers who wrote the regs in such a way that allowed just a stark deviation from what was clearly intended. Ross Brawn admits he didn’t anticipate such ‘an extreme interpretation of the regulations’.

The problem is that there are only a small number of people who set the rules and entire armies of well resourced, terrifyingly intelligent people who are then tasked with pulling them apart. It is a completely mismatched contest and as we have seen too many times in the past, it leads to unforeseen consequences. There are plenty of examples – the Brabham BT46B fan car, McLaren’s F-duct and Ross’s own double diffuser to name but three – all of which were entirely legal and raced as such. You simply cannot blame a rival constructor for outsmarting you. Or, more precisely, if you do the only person it’s going to reflect badly upon is you.

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So how do you stop these ‘extreme’ interpretation of the rules? It’s not very British, but if that’s what you want to do, I favour a presumption of guilt. So instead of being able to do anything that is not specifically excluded in the regs, constructors should be limited only to what is specifically included; if it’s not there, the presumption should be that it’s not allowed. It would hit interpretative creativity very hard and be hated up and down the pitlane (ironically nowhere more than at Red Bull I imagine), but it would stop these anomalies getting through and reduce the risk of one team gaining a season-long advantage over everyone else.

For myself I don’t much like the idea, because seeing how close to the regulatory wind each constructor is able to sail is all part of the fun. And if one happens to find a more acute yet still viable angle than anyone else, to me that’s like finding a better driver, or a more powerful engine: it’s just doing your job better than anyone else. And all sport should be run on such a meritocratic basis. And the advice to team principals faced with someone else’s unforeseen competitive advantage? Don’t get mad, get even.