THE biggest fireworks of the opening day of proper Formula 1 running at Albert Park happened off the track.
But the combination of the team bosses of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull in a room together with the world’s press was always going to be asking for trouble.
Especially when the topic of Ferrari’s recent hiring of FIA deputy race director Laurent Mekies was broached.
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The angst is due to a ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ apparently made between team owners in the wake of the Renault team’s hire of the man in charge of F1’s technical department, Marcin Budkowski, late last year.
Depending on who you ask, Ferrari either broke that agreement, or there was no agreement to break.
No surprise which side of the fence Ferrari team principal Maurizio Arrivabene is on — and he wasn’t afraid to throw a cracker over at the other side.
“First of all, there is nothing wrong with that because we were absolutely respecting the local law, the Swiss local law where Laurent was hired,” he said.
“And afterwards we went even further than that, because we gave him six months of gardening (leave).
“Having said so, normally what we discussed before the strategy group, we signed a confidentiality agreement, that means that we are not allowed to discuss or to share in public what we discussed there.
“Having said so, I heard comments related to us, supposedly, also called a gentlemen’s agreement.
“I think they are comments because a gentlemen’s agreement on libel law is illegal.
“I thought that they were comments … just comments, no more than that, I hope.”
Needless to say, that lit the fuse.
“First of all, I didn’t see any gentlemen in the room when we discussed it,” Mercedes chief Toto Wolff replied, although he had less of a problem with the hire.
“For me the situation is completely different. Marcin was involved in issuing technical directives just a few weeks before he decided to join a team and had a lot of inside (information), and Laurent was involved in totally different activities that are not as sensitive, in my opinion, as with Marcin.
“He’s joining the team in seven or eight months from now and for me it’s not a big deal.”
But for Red Bull chief Christian Horner, it was a big deal.
And he wasn’t afraid to say so.
“I think the disappointing element about this is that we have a thing called the strategy group where the FIA, FOM and all team principals attended and we discussed the Marcin issue where there was great unrest about a key member of the FIA going to a team, in which case this was Renault.
“Renault diluted that by putting him on an extended gardening leave but then ensued a conversation about it’s unacceptable.
“Every team found it unacceptable.
“Of course you’re dealing with employment laws across different states, different countries and to try and police legally something like that, it was agreed in the room all the lawyers in the world couldn’t come up with a contract that could police it.
“But there was an understanding and a clear statement by the teams to say ‘right, let’s have a clear position that there should be at least a period of 12 months in the garden for a member of a team going from either FOM, FIA to a team or a team going vice versa’.
“Certain teams were pushing for that period to be three years but in the end it was agreed upon being 12 months.
“What’s disappointing is that that meeting was less than six weeks ago; arguably, discussions were probably happening at that time and it almost makes those meetings pointless if we can’t agree on something and action it.
“Of course you can hide behind ‘well it’s not in the regulations’ but as a group we agreed something, it hasn’t been adhered to and so one questions … what’s the point of having those meetings?”
Here’s how the rest of the exchange played out.
Arrivabene: We gave a mandate, that’s the main thing, we gave a mandate to the FIA, to the lawyer of the FIA to check national law and to come back to us in the next strategy group and this is what the FIA is going to do in the next strategy group which is on April 17.
Horner: I think that what’s most disappointing about it was that it was Ferrari or Sergio who was pushing for a three-year period.
On one hand you get a team pushing for a three year gestation and then a few weeks later, we’re in this situation, so as I say, it makes discussions at that forum more or less a waste of time.
Arrivabene: That was the discussion but then the conclusion was to give mandate to the FIA to come back … to the lawyer of the FIA to come back with a proposal.
Horner: I’ve said my piece.