Formula One: Drama at Red Bull and the FIA dominates F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian GP

AP , Thursday 7 Mar 2024

All the action in Formula 1 is happening off the track.

Max Verstappen
Red Bull driver Max Verstappen of the Netherlands jumps out of his car after placing first during the Formula One Bahrain Grand Prix at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Saturday, March 2, 2024. Photo: AP


World champion Max Verstappen's father wants to oust the boss of Red Bull, the team that took his son to three consecutive titles. The president of the governing body has reportedly been accused of interfering in one race and trying to stop the Las Vegas street course from being certified for racing. Half the grid is chasing the Mercedes seat that will be empty when Lewis Hamilton leaves at the end of the year.

With so much drama in the paddock, Verstappen's runaway victory at the season-opener in Bahrain last weekend was the least dramatic moment of the past month.

When asked after the opener if Verstappen will cruise to a fourth straight title, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said, “Unfortunately, yes.”

Practice in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah begins on Thursday with F1 dogged by unresolved tension and open conflict. After a years-long boom thanks to Netflix smash hit “Drive to Survive," F1 has never felt more like a reality show than it does right now.

First, there's the turmoil at Red Bull despite Verstappen's win by more than 22 seconds over teammate Sergio Perez. Team principal Christian Horner remains in charge a week after the team's parent company dismissed a complaint that alleged misconduct by Horner toward a team employee. He has denied wrongdoing.

A day after Horner was cleared, a file alleged to contain evidence against Horner was emailed to nearly 200 people in the F1 paddock, including Liberty Media, F1, the FIA, the other nine team principals and multiple media outlets.

The authenticity of the files has not been verified by The Associated Press, and the file came from a generic email account. Titled “Christian Horner investigation evidence,” the file was sent in the middle of a practice session.

Shortly after Verstappen's win in Bahrain, Horner pledged to stand firm “100%” at Red Bull, adding: "There was a full lengthy internal process that was completed by an independent KC (senior British lawyer) and the grievance that was raised was dismissed. End of. Move on.”

But F1 hasn't moved on.

Hours later, British and Dutch newspapers published comments from Verstappen's father Jos attacking Horner. The team “will explode” if Horner stays in charge, he told The Daily Mail.

But before Jos Verstappen's comments could launch another round of gossip, rumors and speculation, the spotlight was suddenly shifted from Horner to FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem.

The BBC reported Ben Sulayem was under an internal FIA investigation after two whistleblower reports accused the president of interfering in races. The whistleblower claimed the president intervened to have a penalty for Fernando Alonso overturned at last year's race in Saudi Arabia. A second BBC report said the whistleblower accused Ben Sulayem of trying to stop the certification of the circuit in Las Vegas, which was F1's lucrative showpiece event last year.

The FIA confirmed it received two complaints "detailing potential allegations involving certain members of its governing body” but hasn't confirmed any details or named Ben Sulayem as the target.

At Mercedes, Hamilton's departure for Ferrari in 2025 has opened a much-coveted spot to partner George Russell. Team principal Wolff can afford to wait and treat this year as an open audition. Mercedes could even potentially provide Verstappen a way out of Red Bull if his relationship with the team sours.

But as Wolff indicated in Bahrain, Mercedes seems to be looking past 2024 from a competition standpoint. Red Bull won all but one race last season and Verstappen's win in Bahrain was the 55th of his career and eighth consecutive dating to 2023.

“The race, for all of us, is for second,” Russell said even before the season opener.

Ferrari looks to be the closest team capable of challenging Red Bull — in qualifying at least — but its race pace is still far away from Verstappen. Brake overheating is also a new concern, even if the battles between Charles Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. were a rare highlight of the otherwise drab Bahrain Grand Prix.

Just like Bahrain, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix is on Saturday to avoid a clash with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts on Sunday.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)

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