With just three races of the 2021 F1 season to go, the stage of the season is upon us where everyone and anyone appears to be looking for an edge. However, in this digital age we also live in a time where everyone is a judge and eager to share an opinion online. The hot topic of the past week is that the FIA race stewards are having too great a role in decisions. As such, F1's Race Director Michael Masi has been quoted by motorsport.com denying any Red Bull Racing favouritism in the wake of the punishment handed to Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team for their rear wing infraction.
The incident that more than likely sparked Formula One Race Director Michael Masi having to make his statement, was Toto Wolff’s response to one of the race stewards’ decision during the course of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.
Having been the Speed King on Friday in Brazil and set to start the third sprint of the F1 season in first place, Sir Lewis Hamilton was stripped of the position and sent to the back of the grid. The reason, as has been well publicised by now, was due to the fact Hamilton’s DRS on his W12 failed the post-session inspection by the FIA. Having failed the test 4 times, the verdict was a P20 start for the Sprint and the response from Mercedes’ boss Toto Wolff was that the decision was "harsh".
There was no doubting the fact that the rear wing was not legal. However, there had been precedent set that, in the past, teams received permission to make repairs to broken car components in parc ferme if the issues could trigger an investigation. Already In previous races, Mercedes’ closest rivals, Red Bull Racing, had been allowed to make repairs to its rear wing in the previous races in USA and Mexico. Now, such an option was not offered to Mercedes hence the claim of an FIA favouritism.
The race stewards' decision in Brazil left Wolff stating "sometimes there was a commonsense buffer that didn't exist yesterday or today." Michael Masi countered this making clear that there isn't any inconsistency in how the FIA operates.
"All the reports that Jo [Bauer] sends out as our technical delegate, prior to the race, clearly explain either repairs or replacements that can happen under parc ferme conditions," said Masi. "And that's clearly listed for everyone to read. So, from that perspective, yes, we have regular requests, at a sprint qualifying weekend it's obviously even more because of when parc ferme starts.
"So, from our perspective, we treat every single request equally, consistently, look at every single one. The thing is, if we see that something is let's call it systematic with the team over a number of events, then we ask them to make permanent modifications to that part. So, there's a whole lot of things that go into it. So no, I don't think there's any inconsistency at all."
Since these comments were made, Mercedes have requested a review into the Turn 4 incident between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton at Interlagos. This incident has split opinion on whether or not Verstappen should have been penalized. As Lewis Hamilton attempted a pass around the outside of the current leader of the F1 Drivers’ Championship, with the Mercedes appearing to be almost fully ahead at Turn 4, Verstappen braked late to re-take the inside line and in doing so ran Hamilton off track. Mercedes have not moved on from this despite their talismanic racer still managing to win Sunday’s Grand Prix - hence the request for review.
Prior to this, Michael Masi had stated that Mercedes and Red Bull, including their drivers, are doing "anything and everything" in the heat of battle and now we will see if a penalty is retrospectively handed to Verstappen for his part in the controversial block. Although, the Dutchman did receive a black and white warning flag for excessive weaving in front of his rival, shortly after this and before the inevitable race-winning overtake by Lewis Hamilton.
"It's battle for the lead of the race, a very tight and intense battle for the world championship," said Masi, as quoted by motorsport.com "And I think everything that we've seen over this weekend between the two teams just adds into that mix. Once you have an intense championship battle you've got both drivers and teams, they will absolutely try and do anything and everything possible from their perspective to win, and understandably so."
The teams may be changing approaches race by race as best they can but - Masi insists the FIA is not:
"Every competitor, every driver, is treated equally and fairly at all times. Obviously, if you're on the receiving end of a penalty, I think everyone feels unfairly treated. So that's part of being in the role that we are."
The story of Sunday’s Sao Paulo Grand Prix is not yet finished but with another Grand Prix in matter of days in Qatar, there is a risk of the events off track overshadowing those that are on it. Momentum is a powerful variable in sport but every neutral race fan must surely hope that the title is decided on track rather than in a stewards’ office. The simple solution is for everyone to abide by the rules – the FIA certainly intend to, no matter what anyone may say to the contrary.