Role of Toto Wolff's former adviser adds fuel to fire of 'porpoising' row with Red Bull rival Christian Horner

·3 min read
Toto Wolff - Role of Toto Wolff’s former adviser adds fuel to fire of ‘porpoising’ row with Red Bull rival Christian Horner - GETTY IMAGES
Toto Wolff - Role of Toto Wolff’s former adviser adds fuel to fire of ‘porpoising’ row with Red Bull rival Christian Horner - GETTY IMAGES

In a further twist to the porpoising row engulfing Formula One, it can be revealed that the technical directive demanded by Mercedes to address their design flaws was overseen at the FIA by Shaila-Ann Rao, who for the past 3½ years worked as a principal lawyer and special adviser to Toto Wolff.

As the dispute between Mercedes and their rivals turns increasingly toxic, with Wolff alleged to have lost his temper during an angry team principals’ meeting here, the emergence of Rao’s role will only add fuel to the fire. Rao was appointed this month as the FIA’s interim secretary-general under president Mohammed bin Sulayem, arriving from Mercedes, where she established herself as one of Wolff’s most important confidantes. The Warwick-educated lawyer worked for the Austrian for 3½ years, initially as his general counsel and then as special adviser.

Even before she oversaw the directive aimed at eliminating porpoising – the jarring up-and-down motion that has particularly plagued Mercedes’ cars – there were worries at other teams about somebody so close to Wolff moving to a position at the heart of the sport’s regulator.

“Certainly it’s a concern,” said Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s team principal.

“It’s down to them to make sure there will be no conflicts of interest at all, to behave properly.” Wolff, for his part, has endorsed Rao’s credentials for the job, arguing: “She’s a lawyer and she is one about governance and transparency. This is what she will be trying to implement and that is good news.”

Wolff allegedly had a furious argument over the Canadian Grand Prix with Binotto and Red Bull’s Christian Horner, who both believe Mercedes should sort out their own issues rather than seek a rule change from the FIA. But Mercedes’ team principal was adamant that the regulations needed to be redrawn on safety grounds, accusing his opposite numbers of “pitiful” behaviour in opposing the move.

“This is a sport where you are trying to keep a competitive advantage or gain it, but this situation has gone too far,” Wolff said. “All drivers – at least one in every team – have said they were in pain after Baku, that they have difficulty keeping the car on track or blurred vision. Team principals trying to manipulate what is being said in order to keep their competitive advantage and trying to play political games is disingenuous.”

Wolff is similarly convinced that rival teams are briefing their drivers to underplay their concerns so as to discourage the FIA from moving more quickly on the matter.

“The car is bouncing. This is a joint problem we are having in F1. It’s a design issue that needs to be solved. We will have long-term effects that we can’t even judge and at any time this is a safety risk. Coming up with little manipulations or Chinese whispers is just pitiful.”

Stressing that several other drivers were unhappy, including Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez and Kevin Magnussen of Haas, Wolff explained: “Of course, people will question whether my position is sincere or not. That’s why I’m saying it’s not only our problem. A Red Bull driver is saying that you can lose your vision braking, not even being able to position the car properly.

“Then you listen to the words of Carlos Sainz, you listen to what Daniel Ricciardo has said, both our drivers. This is not a team’s problem. It’s not just a question of putting the cars up, because doing that doesn’t solve the stiffness of the inherent aerodynamic characteristics. This is a design issue of ground-effect cars that needs to be tackled before we have a situation.”