The first team bosses press conference of the 2018 Formula 1 season got intense this afternoon, with a palpable tension between participants, Toto Wolff of Mercedes, Maurizio Arrivabene of Ferrari, and Christian Horner of Red Bull Racing.
The press conference was held between Formula 1’s two ninety minute practice sessions for this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix. The three highly respected team bosses were sat next to each other and forced to answer questions from the eagerly awaiting media.
It was rather tame to begin, actually. Issues of the new 2018 tires and Hamilton matching the Fangio record dominated. However, by the end of the conference, Wolff, Arrivabene and Horner had engaged in rigorous debates about some of Formula 1’s most contentious issues in recent history, including the large gap between frontrunners and the midfield, Ferrari’s recent hiring of Laurent Mekies, and the all-important 2021 Concorde Agreement.
Formula 1’s never-ending issue of variance
Dan Knutson of American publication, Speed Sport, was the one to open the can of worms when he questioned how the three team bosses would change the current variance of Formula 1 teams to make the sport more competitive.
Toto Wolff was first to answer, and he seemed set on dodging the question. However, his general answer consisted of pointing out how his team was built up over time, and suggesting the simple metaphor, “it’s quite difficult to just put something in the wheel and stop it.” He didn’t think major change could be achieved quickly.
Arrivabene of Ferrari agreed with this opinion, using a similarly hilarious metaphor. “You can’t ask Cristiano Ronaldo to not score, because otherwise Real Madrid is too strong,” he said, reaffirming Ferrari’s perspective that they’ll stop at nothing to hold their competitive advantage.
As expected, Horner – who’s been playing catch up with regard to performance for the last four seasons – was quick to disagree with Wolff and Arrivabene. He feels that Formula 1 needs to change, and needs to do it quickly, stating, “I think the regulations for both chassis and engine are too complicated.”
“For me, the biggest issue in Formula One at the moment is the regulations that dictate cost, performance and divergence in terms of powertrain,” Horner finished. It’s clear he wants a simplified version of Formula 1 to exist. Mercedes and Ferrari are hesitant to agree to this because they risk losing their competitive advantages. Red Bull have nothing to lose because they’re playing catch up anyway.
The one man causing all the controversy
After a slight recess of tensions, drama was ramped up to 11 when a brave Journalist raised the issue of Laurent Mekies, the former FIA safety director who was hired by Ferrari over the winter. Given his roles with the FIA, Mekies would be subject to a period of gardening leave, but not everyone is happy about the length.
Commenting on the legality of Mekies six month gardening leave period, Maurizio Arrivabene said, “we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired.”
Mekies hiring is the second high profile member of the FIA to be hired by a Formula 1 team, after Renault announced the signing of Marcin Budkowski in October last year. It angered teams because they feared Budkowski would take their technical secrets with him from the FIA to Renault.
Following that incident, Formula 1’s strategy group, which is a confidential meeting of all team bosses, discussed the issue of gardening leave for ex-FIA employees. “[W]e signed a confidentiality agreement,” commented Arrivabene, “that means that we are not allowed to discuss or to share in public what we discussed [at the strategy group meeting.]”
Despite this, it was revealed during Mekies hiring earlier in March that the strategy group had a ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ of a minimum 12 month gardening leave period, which Ferrari has supposably broken by only giving Mekies 6 months.
During the press conference, all three team bosses agreed on the existence of the so-called ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’, despite the apparent confidentiality agreement.
Wolff commented on Mekies hiring by saying, “He’s joining the team in seven or eight months from now and for me it’s not a big deal.” Horner was quick to reply, stating, “For me it is a big deal.”
His perspective was simply that a 12 month period had been agreed, and Ferrari appeared to break this rule with ease. As Horner even said, “[it] makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.”
Maurizio Arrivabene began vigorously shaking his head.
The Ferrari Team Boss viewed the dilemma from a legal standpoint, in that no laws had been broken during the hiring of Mekies. Horner seems to view it ethically, in that an unofficial agreement has been broken. The agreement which could change the face of Formula 1.
“It’s becoming quite apparent that you guys can’t agree on anything,” Ben Hunt of The Sun responded after Arrivabene and Horner went toe-to-toe. It led him perfectly into his next question: do the three top teams in Formula 1 need to work together to find a better unified future for the sport?
Wolff was quick to shoot down the idea of co-operation in Formula 1, stating, “I think this is as much a battle on track as much as it is off track for an advantage and it has always been like that.”
“It is clear that the current governance and how the rules are being made is not very functional,” Wolff went onto further say, “there is too much different opinion when the agenda’s on the table and we need to sort it for 2021.”
Wolff seemed very reluctant to provide any vision to the future; instead simply believing that they just need to be unified, instead of properly explaining how this could be achieved. He was very vague.
Christian Horner was completely the opposite. His vision was rather simple actually. “It’s down to the commercial rights holder,” he said.
He then began an angry, passionate tirade of demands, saying, “the FIA to get together, come up with a set of regulations, what is the financial framework, what is the distribution that they want to have, put it on the table and it’s down to the teams whether they want to sign up to that or not.”
The above quote led Sky Sports’ coverage of the second practice session, which Lewis Hamilton would later finish on top of.
But, Horner’s claims of a complete restructure of Formula 1 led by the FIA and FOM didn’t go down very well with Maurizio Arrivabene and Ferrari. Fiat-Chrysler (who own Ferrari) Chairman, Sergio Marchionne, has long been of the opinion that Ferrari will depart Formula 1 if the DNA of the sport is changed, so Horner’s claims are exactly the opposite of Ferrari’s vision.
“My chairman knows very well what he’s talking about [when he talks about quitting] and my only suggestion is please take him seriously,” Arrivabene bluntly told the watching media. He seemed hesitant to try and argue with Wolff or Horner.
Quite simply the perspectives look simple: Mercedes want the DNA changed with them in charge, Red Bull want it changed with the FIA and FOM in charge, and Ferrari don’t want it to change at all, and their threats of quitting are apparently quite real.
And, that rounded out one of the more fiery press conferences in recent Formula 1 history.
Oh, and yeah, there was some on-track action today. Mercedes topped both sessions, surprise, surprise. Although the intensity of press conferences may have changed in 2018, some things just never do…