Mercedes is in hot water after running a private tyre test following the Spanish Grand Prix – but what rules did they break, what did they gain and could it lead to a re-introduction of in-season testing?
Testing was once a crucial part of F1 but as teams increased the amount they ran during the season the escalating costs were deemed ridiculous – with teams like Ferrari sometimes running up to three different programmes in different locations on the same day.
To avoid a spending war, restrictions were introduced, with a 15,000km limit imposed in 2009 followed by a complete ban in 2010.
Ever since, teams have debated the balance between the need for in-season testing and the need to restrict costs – compromising with an in-season young driver test at Mugello last year that was scrapped again for this season.
At the height of F1 testing in 2005, Ferrari completed 155 days of running during the year and spent millions developing their own private facilities, none of which they can now use.
In 2010 Michael Schumacher, for whom testing was a crucial part of his early 2000s dominance, claimed the ban was “ridiculous”, admitting: “I understand why we have ended up where we are, but as it was ridiculous to do 90,000km of testing during the year, it is completely ridiculous to do zero.”
He had a point.
Teams have been debating that point ever since, and at the end of last year Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo said the team’s “patience has run out”, claiming the lack of testing meant the sport is “no longer the most advanced research bench” for its road cars.
So how come, earlier this month, did Mercedes think it possible to stay in Barcelona after the Spanish Grand Prix and conduct 1,000km of private testing?
Article 22 of the FIA’s sporting regulations for Formula One bans any in-season testing at F1 venues and clearly states that ‘a 2013 car and the previous two years’ cars are not possible to be used [in testing] during the season.’
Running with a 2013 car is possible, but only for 100km – which is an allowance for teams to do demonstration runs or publicity filming.
Pirelli’s contract, however, does give them the right to ask any team to conduct up to 1,000km of tyre testing for them during the year – which they would call on if they wished to amend or develop their tyres – as long as they run the test on behalf of the teams and all the teams are offered equal opportunity to test.
The teams also have second separate ‘gentlemen’s agreement’, outlined in a letter from the Formula One Teams Association (FOTA) sent in April last year, that additional in-season tyre testing can take place but only if there is unanimous agreement to request the FIA amend the sporting regulations.
This year Pirelli has come under fire for producing tyres that degrade too quickly and potentially dangerous failures on the Mercedes in recent races have led to a demand for change.
Pirelli have agreed to make modifications for the next race Canada – but to do so effectively they really needed to test with current machinery.
It has been reported that Ferrari conducted 500km of testing for Pirelli before the Spanish Grand Prix, but that was with test driver Pedro de la Rosa and is understood to have used a 2011 car.
Mercedes, who have been having such huge problems with the degradation of their tyres, took it to another level when they used a 2013 machine with, it is understood, its two race drivers behind the wheel.
And Pirelli has openly admitted that they had neither secured unanimous agreement with the teams nor offered them equal opportunities before the test.
When asked about the secrecy of the test, Mercedes boss Ross Brawn simply said: "It was up to Pirelli to spread the information, it wasn't up to us. It was their test.”
He suggested that because Pirelli has been asking teams to help them out for the last year and people haven't been supporting them, that was enough to constitute ‘an offer to test’.
But it seems that everyone else thought that regular communications did not equate to an offer for teams to test in Barcelona with Mercedes after the Spanish Grand Prix. And understandably so.
Pirelli boss Paul Hembery said it the decision not to contact the teams was effectively down to potential political delays.
"You know in F1 that when you start talking about something six months could pass before you found a solution...,” he said. “In reality sometimes you just have to get on and do it."
Both Pirelli and Mercedes claim that there was no benefit to be gained by the team from testing in Barcelona.
But that seems hard to believe.
Given the test saw Mercedes themselves hundreds of thousands of dollars out of pocket, even with the tyre manufacturer covering much of the core costs, why would they spend money just to help Pirelli?
Pirelli said that 90 percent of the running was focused on 2014 tyres – but even if that was the case, that’s still potentially of benefit to Mercedes for next year.
The biggest issue is that Pirelli also tried out the modifications for the next race in Canada – and that allowed Mercedes to get their hands on them before anyone else.
Brawn claimed Pirelli “stipulated what we were doing,” and added the team “don't know which of the tyres they tested was the tyre that they are bringing along to Canada". But their engineers are not stupid, and they will almost certainly be able to work it out.
While the suggestion of Red Bull boss Helmut Marko that “when we test for three days we go a second faster” are rather outrageous, there is no denying that any running a team does with a 2013 car, particularly in Barcelona where there is a good baseline understanding, will have a benefit, whatever tyres they were on.
Overall, the 1,000km equates to more than three full race distances. Which is a lot of extra benefit.
SO WHAT NEXT?
Before the secret test was revealed, Brawn confirmed the team had been working hard on the tyre issue and had come to Monaco “with changes” - but that they would not be able to judge how successful those changes were until Silverstone.
Those developments will almost certainly have been helped by the 1,000km covered in Barcelona.
But whether or not Mercedes gained an advantage from the test is not the biggest issue – it is whether this now opens the door to the rest.
Mercedes could be stripped of points, fined or excluded from future races if they are found to have done wrong – and unless more facts are yet to be revealed, surely the FIA will to act.
Because if Mercedes are found ‘not guilty’ and go unpunished then every team that can afford to do so will want their piece of the action and will line up to use their full 1,000km with their 2013 cars.
That could open the floodgates towards a return to in-season testing. But this is not necessarily a bad thing - if managed correctly it could result in the balance that Schumacher had suggested three years ago...