It is a bitter disappointment for the Red Bull team and, of course, Ricciardo, who last month thought he had become the first Australian to secure a podium position at his home race.
Instead of sitting in third place in the drivers’ standings with 30 points going into this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix, Ricciardo—because his car failed to adhere to the FIA’s fuel flow restrictions in Melbourne—is instead down in 10th with only 12 points to his name.
But is it a surprise? Not in the slightest. Not when Charlie Whiting, the F1 race director, was quoted by Jonathan Noble of Autosport, only days ahead of the season-opening race, that a “no tolerance” approach would be taken against any team found to exceed the new fuel restrictions.
And although, as sports fans, we always want our teams, our participants and our heroes to succeed and triumph over the authorities and suits, this was one case that the FIA just could not afford to lose.
It would not be an underestimation to suggest that the FIA’s credibility as a governing body was on the line as the Court of Appeal hearing began in Paris. If Red Bull were adjudged to have a more accurate and therefore better fuel sensor than the FIA, the latter’s influence would have been in tatters.
It would have been the equivalent of a football manager awarding a penalty on behalf of the referee, or a bowler giving a batsman out rather than the umpire.
The FIA would have been critically undermined and considered unfit to control the sport that they run.
As a consequence, it would have encouraged other teams to follow the Red Bull route, running their own races and spending thousands upon thousands of pounds to develop and perfect their own fuel sensors at a time when the tiresome subject of cost-cutting has stumbled onto the radar once again.
The result of the hearing, then, was a victory for Formula One, yet it also provided a revealing insight into what effect four years of relentless success has had on Red Bull.
This was clear when Red Bull chief technical officer Adrian Newey, giving evidence, was quoted by Autosport’s Edd Straw as recalling an interaction with Fabrice Lom, the FIA’s head of powertrain during the Australian Grand Prix. Lom had warned Red Bull that they were operating in excess of the fuel flow limit of 100kg/h.
When Mr Lom approached us and said that he felt we were using too much fuel, we disagreed with that.
No team wants to court controversy and then defend itself, so if you can comply with those wishes even if you don't agree with them, then that's what you do and that's exactly what we did.
The fact is, it then became evident that if we continued to comply, we would lose positions.
That Red Bull would rather risk losing Ricciardo’s second place in the stewards’ room than take a solid, if unspectacular, points finish in the race itself is indicative of how addictive winning has become for the Milton Keynes outfit.
When you have scored 47 grand prix victories, 57 pole positions and four world championships as driver and constructor in only five years (the anniversary of Red Bull’s debut win falls on Saturday in Shanghai), the very thought of finishing only fifth or sixth is considered disastrous, despite being viewed as a decent result by the vast majority of the other 10 teams.
What made Red Bull’s stubbornness all the more staggering is that they arrived in Australia praying for the points finish that they would have earned if they had acted upon the FIA’s advice. Their form and reliability were so horrendous in pre-season that there were genuine concerns about whether the team, serial pole-sitters since 2009, would progress from the second segment of qualifying and score a point on pure pace alone.
The intervention of rain, which allowed Ricciardo to qualify second, put Red Bull in an unexpected position. Again, the vast majority of the other 10 teams would have seen this as a bonus.
But Red Bull, the four-time champions, wanted more and, in ignoring the recommendations of their governing body, displayed the type of arrogance and self-entitlement that only sports teams of jaw-dropping success are capable of.
This was best summed up by Mercedes QC Paul Harris, who was quoted by Edd Straw of Autosport as stating in Paris:
We are, frankly, and with great respect, concerned that Red Bull have shown such a flagrant and deliberate disregard for these rules that there is a real risk they will do it again.
We are here to seek to ensure that that does not happen, we must have a level playing field going forward for the remainder of the season.
With the decision to uphold Ricciardo’s disqualification, that level playing field is now assured. And Formula One will be all the better for it.
Over the last half a decade, we have seen Red Bull evolve from midfield runners to pace-setters, from just another energy drink to all-conquering constructor. Their stature has grown with every wave of Sebastian Vettel’s index finger, every sip of champagne and every trophy held aloft.
In Melbourne and in Paris, however, they showed the darkest side of victory. This ruling means it won’t be seen again.
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