Private Test. Public Headache.

This weekend at the Canadian Grand Prix, I was on the lookout for a subject for my first Formula1Blog post.  There was no shortage of stories this weekend, but I found myself in those rare quieter moments being drawn back to a question for which no answer was yet apparent: Why did the Mercedes/Pirelli private test happen?

In the simplest analysis, it seems so straightforward that even contemplating a test like this would have been silly.  But as I looked at the situation from the perspectives of the three main protagonists, things become much less clear cut.

First, let’s view this from Paul Hembery’s perspective.  Hembery is the Motorsport Director for Pirelli, and has been pulled into this controversy because of his efforts to ensure Pirelli deliver reliable and competitive tires for 2014 and beyond.  Formula One’s switch to Pirelli as the single source tire supplier has, in part, resulted in the past few years being some of the most exciting and competitive in a long time.  Pirelli uses computer simulation for much of their tire development, but they also use a 2010 Renault R30 to perform track testing.  This has worked well, but as the brilliant Formula One designers and engineers claw back more and more downforce, the R30 quickly became much less useful for evaluating compounds.

Pirelli has asked the teams for help.  But Formula One teams can’t help themselves without hurting themselves at the same time.  Their inability to agree on pretty much anything has resulted in testing being limited to the following:

  • Up to 8 “Promotional Events” using tires specifically designed for these events (i.e. useless)
  • 3 pre-season 4 day tests overseen by the FIA (i.e. bring a warm coat and gloves, forget hopes of useful tire data)
  • 1 young driver 3 day test (i.e. slightly useful)
  • 4 one day straight line or constant radius aero tests (i.e. useless)
  • 1 day of track testing for a driver substitution if the new driver hasn’t participated in an F1 race in 2 years

This left Pirelli to largely do its own testing and simulation.  The pre-season tests this year were so cold as to be nearly useless.  It’s no wonder the tires may have drifted a bit off from their desired sweet spot.  The sport has essentially told Pirelli to use their best guess.

Paul Hembery is a professional and a man of integrity.  His goal is to ensure that Pirelli delivers reliable and consistent tires to the competitors in Formula One.  Doing this ensures a positive branding experience for Pirelli, which in turn reinforces their participation in Formula One.  But Hembery needs help getting the 2014 tires right.  What I don’t know yet is:

  • Was every team presented at the same time with the fixed date and location for this private test?
  • If more than one team would have accepted, how would Pirelli have chosen?
  • Was Pirelli mindful or concerned about the use of a current car for their test and the potential for violating the Sporting Code?  

Pirelli does not yet have a contract for 2014 and beyond.  It’s getting late in the day, and being hauled before the International Tribunal to defend themselves cannot be sitting well with their Board and management team.  The paranoid or cynical are wondering if perhaps Michelin has a skunk works team working on 2014 tires, and are positioning themselves for a return to “save” Formula One.  Certainly Jean Todt, who I believe is French, has had positive things to say about Michelin recently.

The second central figure in this drama is FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting.  You will not find a gentleman in Formula One with more knowledge and experience with the sport.  He has managed the sport with a steady hand for decades and has the universal respect of everyone in the Paddock.  And he keeps a very low profile.  He has some bollard on Twitter pretending to be him, but that’s another story.  Whiting’s knowledge and understanding of the Sporting and Technical Regulations is without peer.  Given the reports that Mercedes sought out and received the FIA’s approval for the private Pirelli test leaves me asking one big question:

  • What exactly did Mercedes AMG Petronas state in its communication to the FIA and what specifically did it ask for approval of?

Charlie Whiting has significant authority in Formula One.  But even he cannot give a team an exemption from a Sporting Regulation. He has seen enough controversies in the sport to see them coming a mile away.  The chances of Charlie Whiting giving Mercedes a pass to do something in violation with the Regulations are nil.  But what was he asked?

And finally, the third hero (or villain, depending on your perspective) – Ross Brawn.  If there is a Team Director in Formula One with a reputation for finding a micron of light in a regulation and driving an entire Formula One car through it, it’s Ross Brawn.  He is a genius at thinking unconventionally and seeing a way to gain advantage in car performance or strategy that others miss.  And when this happens, the others inevitably complain and protest to the FIA.  But you cannot argue with the successful results Brawn has delivered at Benetton, Ferrari, Brawn GP and now Mercedes.

I spent some time with the Mercedes team during the Canadian Grand Prix weekend, and they were understandably tight lipped about this issue.  With it becoming such a potentially damaging situation if the International Tribunal rules against Mercedes, caution is well advised.  But there seemed to me to be a quiet confidence in the team.  And I found that very interesting.

Perhaps the part of this entire saga that confounds me the most is the dramatic inconsistency in paranoia levels demonstrated with this private test when compared to the steps Pirelli took to ensure Lotus gained no advantage through the use of the Renault R30.  In those tests, software telemetry systems are locked down, and USB ports are also locked down to prevent data acquisition.  The promotional demonstration team handles and prepares the car, not the race team.  Pirelli test drivers are used, and not any drivers currently competing in the Championships.  Great care is taken to ensure those tests are as neutral to Lotus and the rest of the competitors as possible.  And this is perfectly appropriate.

So how should we view a private test, using the Mercedes 2013 W04 that had less than 24 hours earlier been battling it out with Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren and the rest of the grid? A test using the Mercedes race team, without any FIA supervision and only the team’s assurances that no tests benefiting Mercedes were performed?  A test with none of the aforementioned telemetry lockdown safeguards and one that gives Mercedes an early taste of the possible 2014 tire compounds. How much telemetry was collected by Mercedes? Were any new parts or software tested? Were reliability tests run? Simply running this test opens Mercedes up to this unfortunate speculation.

I think all Formula One teams share in some of the responsibility for creating this problem.  They’ve asked Pirelli to perform some magic without giving them the magic wand.  But this test appears to have minimally put Mercedes and Pirelli into the position of defending whether these actions represented the sporting ideals that underly all motorsport, and compliance with the Regulations.

We shall find out on June 20 what the International Tribunal’s verdict is.  This new FIA judicial system shall hear from all the interested parties and make their decision.  It’s difficult to predict how dramatically it will want to establish its presence with a case like this.  I suspect Mercedes’ fate boils down to the communication with Charlie Whiting, and whether this time, Ross Brawn was just a bit too clever for his own good.


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