Newly acclaimed double world champion Max Verstappen has every right to enjoy celebrating his second drivers’ championship success in relaxed Texan style this weekend.
But, as he seeks to break another on-track individual record at the United States Grand Prix two weeks after his title triumph in Japan, his Red Bull team boss Christian Horner will be fired by two more serious ambitions.
His first is to defend the Milton Keynes-based outfit’s reputation amid claims that they ‘cheated’ on their way to powering Max Verstappen to his two consecutive drivers’ title successes in 2021 and 2022.
The accusation that has tarnished their recent achievements came after Red Bull were found to have been in breach of an official budget cap for 2021 – for which they have yet to learn their punishment, but which prompted one rival team to say they had been cheating.
Horner’s second goal is to ensure that the team stay focussed and maintain the stunning form that has seen the Dutchman canter to a runaway second championship by claiming the constructors’ title for the first time since 2013 and fifth in all.
While Verstappen goes in pursuit of his second win at the Circuit of the Americas, where he won last year, Horner is expected to be presenting his case for the defence of Red Bull in private paddock meetings and formal news conferences.
According to ruling body, the International Motoring Federation (FIA), Red Bull exceeded a spending limit of $145 million (dollars) with a “minor breach” of the cap, believed to be five per cent, or $7.25 million dollars.
Details of the team’s wrongdoing, the discussions that surrounded the FIA’s analysis of their accounts and any likely penalties have not yet been released, but McLaren team chief Zak Brown, in a widely-reported letter of October 12 sent to the FIA, said their action “constitutes cheating”.
In response, Red Bull have suggested they did not overspend in any performance related areas, but in catering, sick pay and ‘gardening leave’ and are preparing to fight the charges made against them.
Both Mercedes, who dominated the sport from 2014 until this season, and Ferrari are adamant that any breach of the budget cap must be seen as a performance issue and treated with severity.
By rich coincidence, the three key team bosses – Horner, Toto Wolff and Matteo Binotto are expected to face questions at an official FIA news conference on Saturday.
For Horner and his team, notably Verstappen, a challenge to the FIA may risk heavier sanctions than those expected for a ‘minor’ infringement, thus adding much intrigue to the background paddock plotting this weekend.
Verstappen’s championship win last year may be reviewed in a possible legal process.
The Dutchman has already been declared by Horner to be the most talented driver Red Bull have ever had in spite of trailing seven wins behind four-time champion Sebastian Vettel on 32 wins to his 39 for the team.
Another victory on Sunday would be a record 14th for the season.
He can expect strong competition from Ferrari and Mercedes, although Charles Leclerc is expected to take a grid penalty for using a new engine, while seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton bids to avoid completing a season without a win for the first time.
Hamilton has won five of the nine previous Austin races, but he has hailed Verstappen and Red Bull’s achievements this year and rallied his team to rebuild for 2023.
“They’ve done an incredible job this year, as a whole, every single individual there,” he said.
“So, their car will probably just continue to evolve, as probably will Ferrari’s, although they’ve got some teething problems.
“We’ve had to take a step back and switch gears and go in a different direction and hope that we’re on that right path next year. And I’ve got to try and ‘gee’ everybody up so we leave no stone unturned.”
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