- F1’s most fraught title race in years heated up even further over the rear wing of the Mercedes car.
- Rivals Red Bull allege that the rear wing is flexing illegally, citing social media evidence.
- Amid the incident, the title race has now descended into mudslinging and petty name-calling.
The 2021 Formula One campaign has been the most exciting and most thrilling for years. Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen have been locked in a season-long tussle for the world title and with two races to go, either driver could still get their hands on the trophy.
For all the on-track drama, there has been plenty off it too. While Hamilton and Verstappen rarely speak out, their bosses are a different story.
Aside from the drivers, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner are the faces of their respective teams. Both see it as their job to protect their “tribe,” but the attempts to do that have been getting more personal and more petty as the season has progressed.
In an interview with the Daily Telegraph this week, for instance, Horner joked that the six-foot-four-tall Wolff was a “wuss” and said he could take him in a fight.
While Wolff and Horner publicly jab at each other verbally, there is much more going on behind the scenes, with the Red Bull boss seemingly endorsing allegations of foul play by Mercedes this week.
Hamilton’s rear wing proving cause of concern for Red Bull
The issue causing the most friction between the teams is the rear wing of the Mercedes car.
Having not won in three races, Hamilton arrived at the Sao Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil as a new man, and with a significantly quicker car. Wolff described this extra speed as being down to a new “rocket engine,” which allowed the British driver to blitz his opposite number.
Red Bull disagreed, however.
Horner said the German team’s speed was “not normal” and they were proven correct as Hamilton was disqualified from qualifying by the stewards over an irregularity with his rear wing.
After qualifying, stewards found that Hamilton’s wing did not meet regulations about how wide it opens.
On each track in F1, there are zones where drivers can activate a technology called the Drag Reduction System (DRS).
Employing DRS opens a flap in the car’s rear wing, decreasing aerodynamic drag and thus improving the car’s top speed, making overtaking easier during races.
Rules state that the rear wing can only open to a width of 85mm, and the stewards have a device they can use to see if the wing meets that requirement and is legal.
When inspecting Hamilton’s car, they found that while the device could not pass through the middle portion of the rear wing, it could on the right side by less than a millimeter.
This may sound like a trivial amount, but in a world where tenths of seconds are important, it was significant as the bigger the opening, the faster the car can go in a straight line.
Hamilton was disqualified, and that was that. Or was it?
Mercedes’ wing under scrutiny after social media footage
Red Bull still had issues with Mercedes’ rear wing, but not for the same reason Hamilton got disqualified.
According to an oft-cited regulation, known as Article 3.8, any aerodynamic devices on an F1 car must be rigid and “remain immobile in relation to the sprung part of the car.”
This was an issue earlier in the 2021 season when a number of teams were suspected to be using so-called “bendy wings,” to gain an advantage. Rules were tweaked when the issue emerged, and it appeared to go away.
That was until Brazil, when the issue of bendy wings, albeit a different part of the wing, resurfaced.
The issue first came to public attention when Verstappen was spotted inspecting and touching Hamilton’s car after qualifying. He was fined 50,000 euros for doing so.
Verstappen was looking at part of the rear wing beneath the DRS flap, which Red Bull believes bends when it is travelling at high speed.
This, in theory, would allow the car to go even quicker by widening the DRS gap further and further reducing drag.
That suggestion was then strengthened by social media footage which showed Hamilton’s rear wing during the Brazilian Grand Prix.
During the video, posted by Motorsport Exposure on Twitter, the bottom flap of the wing appears to flex downwards, although the movement is hard to perceive at normal speeds. The photo above shows the difference, with a small gap present in the second image, purportedly showing the flexing.
“What we’ve seen going around on social media does seem to tie in with our theory. And if it was working in the manner we believe it was, it would be a clear breach of the regs,” Horner told The Daily Telegraph.
—Motorsport Exposure (@motorsportsure) November 22, 2021
Another piece of social media evidence Red Bull pointed to was an image of Mercedes’ rear wing which appeared to show scratches, something Horner told Sky is evidence of the bendy wing.
“The grey shadow area is where that lower part of the wing is what we call fretting against, it’s where it has backed off, where it has moved and flexed,” he said.
—F1 News.Live (@f1newslive_) November 19, 2021
Wolff, however, alleged that Red Bull was seeing “ghosts.”
“I can’t see anything in this photo other than stuff being scratched,” he told Sky Sports F1. “I don’t know where they got this photo from and what it shows. It’s a ghost.”
The two were then paired next to each other for a pre-race press conference and neither pulled any punches.
Horner queried score marks on the wing while Wolff offered to send Red Bull the wing so they could cut it into “a thousand pieces.”
After protesting Mercedes’ wings to the FIA, Red Bull was able to get the governing body to introduce a new load test for wings, which was more stringent than before.
Following that new test, Horner said: “For the first time since prior to the British Grand Prix we saw straight line speeds in Qatar pretty much identical [to Mercedes], throughout the speed range,” told the newspaper.
While Red Bull is content to leave the issue for now, the team has not ruled out further appeals should they discover any more evidence of suspected wrongdoing from Mercedes.
Hamilton denies any foul play from Mercedes
Hamilton, for his part, denied any allegations of cheating or bending the rules (or rear wings.)
“If it is egos fighting each other there is defence, there is respect,” he told The Guardian newspaper.
“But what is important, I did see someone say something about cheating and that’s the worst claim to ever make. We have done all these tests and this is where it is. I don’t like it when people put that out there.”
This weekend, attention turns back to the track as Hamilton and Verstappen once again battle it out, bendy wings or no bendy wings.