In a further twist on the porpoise dispute engulfing Formula 1, it can be revealed that the technical guidance requested by Mercedes to fix their design flaws at the FIA was overseen by Shaila-Ann Rao, who has worked as Chief Counsel for the last 3½ years and Special Advisor to Toto Wolff.
As the spat between Mercedes and their rivals heats up and Wolff reportedly lost his temper during an angry team bosses’ meeting here, the emergence of Rao’s role will only add fuel to the fire. Rao was appointed interim general secretary of the FIA under President Mohammed bin Sulayem this month, coming from Mercedes where she established herself as one of Wolff’s key confidants. The Warwick-trained lawyer worked for the Austrian for 3½ years, first as General Counsel and then as Special Advisor.
Even before she oversaw the directive aimed at eliminating porpoises — the jerky up-and-down motion that has particularly plagued Mercedes cars — there were concerns from other teams that someone so close to Wolff would be in a position at the heart of the sports regulator.
“Certainly it’s a problem,” said Mattia Binotto, Ferrari team boss.
“It’s up to them to make sure there’s no conflict of interest at all, to behave properly.” For his part, Wolff has endorsed Rao’s credentials for the job, arguing, “She’s a lawyer and she’s about governance and transparency. She will try to implement that and that is good news.”
Wolff reportedly had a heated argument over the Canadian Grand Prix with Red Bull’s Binotto and Christian Horner, both of whom believe Mercedes should solve their own problems rather than demand a rule change from the FIA. But the Mercedes team boss insisted the regulations needed to be redrawn for safety reasons, and accused his colleagues of “pathetic” behavior in resisting the move.
“This is a sport where you’re trying to keep or gain a competitive advantage, but this situation is taking it too far,” Wolff said. “All the drivers – at least one in each team – said they felt pain after Baku, struggled to keep the car on track or had blurred vision. Team bosses who try to manipulate what is said to maintain their competitive advantage and try to play political games are disingenuous.”
Wolff is similarly convinced that competing teams are instructing their drivers to downplay their concerns to discourage the FIA from moving faster on the matter.
“The car shakes. It’s a common problem that we have in Formula 1. It’s a design problem that needs to be solved. We’re going to have long-term impacts that we can’t even judge, and this is a security risk at any point in time. It’s just pathetic to dream up little manipulations or Chinese whispers.”
Stressing that several other drivers were unhappy, including Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, Wolff stated: “Obviously people will question whether my position is genuine or not. That’s why I say it’s not just our problem. A Red Bull driver says braking can cause blindness and not even the ability to position the car properly.
“Then you listen to the words of Carlos Sainz, you listen to what Daniel Ricciardo said, our two drivers. It’s not a team problem. It’s not just about pitching the cars, because that doesn’t solve the inherent stiffness of the aerodynamic properties. This is a ground effect vehicle design issue that needs to be addressed before we have a situation.”