Will Gray

Gray Matter: Can F1 benefit from Mercedes test?

Will Gray

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This weekend the Silverstone paddock will be buzzing with reaction to last week’s Tribunal decision on the Mercedes tyre test – but what happened, what was wrong, and can F1 turn it from negative to positive?

Ferrari and Red Bull are still fuming after Mercedes were ruled to have run a 2013 car illegally in a Barcelona tyre test earlier this year but were only given what their rivals see as a soft punishment of a ban from next months’ young driver test.

The Tribunal decision came at the end of a long series of consequential events, which date right back to the introduction of the in-season testing ban and the subsequent lack of data available to tyre manufacturers Pirelli.

This year, Pirelli has been under pressure after their new collection of tyres turned out to degrade too quickly and, in the worst case, completely delaminate and strip themselves of their tread right down to the metal carcass.

This tyre wear issue appears to be at its worst on the Mercedes cars, and it was a tyre delamination on Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend that started to flag this up as a major concern.

Pirelli has admitted that they failed to predict the performance gains the teams achieved over the winter and that their tyres cannot now cope with the level of rear downforce and grip the cars are producing.

Much of that is down to a lack of tyre testing and, more importantly, a lack of suitable equipment for Pirelli to test on.

Pirelli cannot build their own 2013-spec car to test with and they can’t use anyone else’s because that would mean the tyres would develop to suit that particular car. So they use an old Renault from 2010, which bears little resemblance to the current machinery on which their tyres are run competitively.

According to the evidence now available, Pirelli booked the test in Spain as part of their testing allowance but did not have their own test car available.

As part of their contract, however, they have 1,000km of testing time available with any team that agrees to help them, as long as they test is run by Pirelli and they offer the opportunity to all the teams.

They turned to Mercedes, as the team suffering the most, and asked if they would supply a car but because the Brackley-based team’s 2011 car is now just a show car and cannot run long distances, the team asked the FIA if they could run a 2013 car.

There is nothing in the Pirelli contract that says they cannot use a 2013 car, and although there is such a clause in the official sporting regulations, the crucial point is that if it is a test run by Pirelli it is not governed by these regulations.

The FIA’s race director Charlie Whiting was asked twice by Mercedes if it was ok and they were told that it was, providing the test met the terms in the Pirelli contract.

So the test went ahead – and when the issue of running the car was brought up at drivers meeting in Monaco, it fed back to the teams and led to protest.

In brief, the Tribunal concluded that the test WAS illegal but that it was not done intentionally, and crucially Mercedes had done all they could to make sure it was legal, and thought that it was.

That can be argued.

Nobody told the other teams specifically about the test – it was deemed that the fact other teams had been invited to test back in March 2012 was enough to cover off that part of the requirements. And the two race drivers even ran in black helmets to protect their identities, adding to the ‘secretive’ rather than ‘private’ nature of the test.

Ross Brawn has not achieved the championship success he has during his career without some clever gamesmanship – and perhaps this was just another one of those cases.

So did the punishment fit the crime?

Red Bull and Ferrari say not. They claim a private 1,000km test with race drivers in good weather is much more beneficial than a three-day group test with young test drivers on a track that is susceptible to bad weather.

However, Mercedes argue they do lose out - and they have a fair point.

The driver they would have used, Sam Bird, has clocked up 620 testing laps for the team since 2010 and thousands more miles on the simulator back at base in Brackley. So he is more than capable of running through a test programme, evaluating developments and feeding back to the team.

They did have a large amount of development parts lined up ready to run, and also had plans for long-distance tests that cannot easily be conducted within the timing of a Grand Prix weekend.

Moreover, being able to run Bird on the current tyres in a real test would have given him a crucial connect between track and simulator, making his work in the latter during the season far more beneficial.

Mercedes’ rivals, meanwhile, have similarly experienced drivers to help test their developments in the young driver test – which takes place at Silverstone on July 17-19 – and unless rain does upset the running they will definitely make at least as many gains as Mercedes did in their test, if not more.

In the end, however, the test ban was the only penalty the Tribunal could give out, given that a member of the prosecuting party, the FIA, had been the one to suggest the test was ok in the first place.

The decision WILL stop this happening again. The Tribunal has clarified that testing a 2013 car is illegal, any which way it is done, so any team that claims they could be tempted to do so (Red Bull has half-seriously hinted at it) would be clearly aware they were acting illegally – and that would draw a much harsher punishment.

But what it WON’T do is help Pirelli out – in fact it makes things even worse for them.

They need to get their hands on some new machinery to be able to develop their product to meet the demands of the cars that use it, but this incident has clearly underlined the feelings teams have about the advantages to be gained from tyre testing with a current car.

The teams are constantly complaining about the tyres, yet it seems few are happy to try to help Pirelli to learn and improve. If anything good can come from this incident, then it is for the teams to come together and find a solution.

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