Toro Rosso’s spat with Renault makes Red Bull the biggest loser
When all the team deals are done, 90% of the driver contracts are signed and both Formula 1 world titles are decided, occasionally Formula 1 can wrap itself up in focusing on the next season before the current one finishes.
Then on other occasions teams throw a hand grenade of a public statement to keep everyone on their toes. Step forward Toro Rosso. Saturday morning’s ‘team clarification’ didn’t come completely out of the blue but the timing certainly posed questions. With the Italian team already set to start its new Honda partnership in two races time any criticism from Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul could have been met with a bitten tongue to bide their time until the opportunity to share its side of the story.
But that wasn’t what Toro Rosso and team principal Franz Tost wanted. With the all-important F1 world constructors’ championship standings still to be decided, an undertone accusation of unfair treatment with engine parts stung Renault and its response – this time kept behind closed doors – was furious. Fortunately for the watching world those closed doors were made of glass in the Interlagos paddock as TV cameras caught an iterate Abiteboul pointing the finger at Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr Helmut Marko.
This triggered Marko into action as peacemaker, a role he’s famously unfamiliar with, as another statement followed from Red Bull praising Renault.
Was this to pour water over a small fire ignited by its sister team Toro Rosso or could this be to soothe tensions for further down the line. When the Toro Rosso-Honda and McLaren-Renault deal was announced in Singapore rumours rapidly spread of the French manufacturer ending its supply to Red Bull when its current deal expires at the end of 2018 – another key move to see the factory effort return to the top step by refusing to support a direct competitor.
After speculation about a Red Bull-Renault divorce the Milton Keynes-based squad acted quickly by hinting at its own new engine venture with Aston Martin (with help from Cosworth) but with engine rules set to change in 2021 any new engine supplier coming into F1 seems unlikely until the next generation of regulations.
As a result, Red Bull may need to find a stopgap beyond next season if its wobbly relationship with Renault takes a tumble. Pissing off Renault, albeit by association, certainly wouldn’t be a smart strategy move – not that Toro Rosso may care with a Honda deal sorted while being put up for sale by Red Bull.
The sun shines on Massa’s final homecoming
Nobody will ever forget Felipe Massa’s last-but-one home race when he crashed out in the pouring rain and made his emotional stroll up the Interlagos pit lane to receive admiration from fans and teams with the Brazilian flag around his shoulders. It got the tears flowing but didn’t feel like the fair ending he deserved.
12 months on and Massa’s last home F1 race (this time for real) was a weekend that summed up an entire career. Massa was ‘best of the rest’ in the race behind the top three teams, akin to not quite reaching the pinnacle like his 2008 world title miss, but he still demonstrated his full race craft defending from familiar foe Fernando Alonso. The Williams driver also wasn’t prepared to go down without a fight after his run-in with Carlos Sainz Jr during qualifying where he showed his mettle the next day by thoroughly outperforming those around him to prove he wasn’t going to walk away quietly like 2016.
Bernie’s back (or did he ever leave)
The Brazilian Grand Prix also hosted a now lesser-spotted Bernie Ecclestone since his shift into the scenery by new owners Liberty Media but the former ringmaster let everyone knew he wasn’t completely out of the picture just yet. Private meetings here and there with all major heads of teams, a catch-up over coffee between old friends, demonstrated Ecclestone can still hit the beating heart of Formula 1 even with his powers waned.
While accepting Liberty’s F1 ambitions since taking the reins Ecclestone hasn’t been a firm friend, they did take the keys off of him after all, and the former F1 supremo was greeted warmly by the majority of the people he met.
With Liberty facing a mixed-to-poor reception on its potential plans for the future of F1, familiar ally Ecclestone was in the thick of things. With the man who built F1 into the multi billion-dollar industry it is today it’ll be a case of watch this space.
F1 returns to the wild world
Most of new or returning races on the F1 calendar have been set-up with ultra-firm security protecting the plush and glamorous world of F1 (Mexico and Azerbaijan the obvious examples) but returning to Interlagos remains a throwback to a previous era which even the likes of Silverstone struggles to hold on to with its new international paddock.
But this year’s Brazilian Grand Prix was held with a fearful undertone as problems with Sao Paulo gangs flared up to make headline news. First a Mercedes team bus was robbed at gunpoint, followed by similar incidents for head FIA officials, Sauber, Williams, Pirelli and a couple of other unreported incidents which ultimately led to the Italian tyre manufacturer scrapping its test with McLaren this week over security fears.
Outrage grew in the paddock, Lewis Hamilton called for action, Liberty Media remained frustratingly quiet over the incidents and fear ultimately won.
In the local Brazilian media speculation also grew about the coincidental nature of each of the attacks: similar flashpoints at similar times, all hitting team personal carrying the most valued items the attackers could target. Some local police reports brushed off any wider implications but the news remained unabated about darker undergoing in Sao Paulo which saw an opportunity with F1 coming to town. Whether that will remain the case after its current contract ends in 2020, or even earlier, remains to be seen but many feel F1 doesn’t need to take risks with a number of other venues lining up to join the race calendar.
If the worst were to happen the Brazilian Grand Prix would be a sorely missed fixture given the country’s history in F1 and the circuit’s most iconic moments with Ayrton Senna, Massa, Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. But with Massa departing to leave no Brazilian drivers on the F1 grid for the first time since 1969 it’s not impossible to consider the sport stepping away from the nation, at least until it clears up the ongoing troubles.