Friday 21 June 2013

Mercedes's International Rescue - views on the outcome of Testgate

I guess that you could file that under 'anti-climax'. The matter of Mercedes having participated in an in-season tyre test with Pirelli had dominated F1 coverage ever since it 'broke' on the morning of the Monaco race last month. And as we anticipated the verdict of the 'Testgate' International Tribunal today it felt like awaiting the final act of an epic and grandiose opera, that was meant to surpass all that had come before. Absolutely nothing could be ruled out. Yet what we got was a modest rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb.

The International Tribunal did find Mercedes and Pirelli guilty today, but was apparently full of understanding of how they might have mistakenly and inadvertently concluded that what they were doing was kosher. And the punishment was mild: a reprimand for both (the F1 equivalent of a stern telling off) as well as Mercedes being barred from the forthcoming three-day young drivers' test - which seems more ham-fisted attempt at levelling up the balance than it does retribution (some, including Ferrari, have argued already that it doesn't even manage that). Widely anticipated sanctions, such as fines and points penalties, were shunned.

All at Mercedes may be breathing a sign of relief
Credit: Morio / CC
And for all of the expressions of confidence in advance of the Tribunal by Merc's Team Principal Ross Brawn, I suspect that he and his team will have heaved a massive sigh of relief at the outcome. The barely concealed relish with which Brawn and Mercedes accepted the verdict betrayed as much, as did the fact that its defence had already suggested that very same punishment as a suitable one (indeed, that it was suggesting punishments at all wasn't a sign of faith in its case). Niki Lauda's rather conspicuous distancing of himself from the matter indicated that he wasn't all that confident of the outcome either. And one hopes that the Mercedes company doesn't seek to spin this as a vindication in the coming days (and trawling around social media some of the team's acolytes have already started on that one): after all the team was found guilty.

So, how did the International Tribunal reach the destination that it did? As intimated, the guilty verdict of Mercedes breaching the Sporting Regulations on in-season testing with a current car, as well as of Mercedes and Pirelli bringing the sport into disrepute and acting in a fashion prejudicial to the interests of competition (the latter Article being the one that McLaren and Renault got the book thrown at them for, for Spygate and Crashgate respectively), and for it to be concluded that Mercedes got an 'unfair advantage' from it all, doesn't on the face of it quite square with the tepid punishment.

Further, many of Mercedes's points made during the matter seemed rather disingenuous: that Brawn, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg did not even hint at the test's existence in several media interviews done in the Spanish and Monaco Grand Prix weekends seems way beyond mere coincidence. Claiming that Hamilton and Rosberg would have been mobbed by excitable Spaniards had they worn their usual helmets in the test seems from the realms of fantasy. Mercedes further maintained for weeks that it had no competitive advantage from the test, only for Brawn to admit under cross examination in the Tribunal that there 'inevitably' would have been some benefit. Its defence's finger pointing in the Tribunal at Ferrari struck me as juvenile.

And ultimately, the regulations regarding in-season testing were well-known. As was that rules cannot be waived without the explicit agreement of all of the other teams. For Brawn (with Pirelli) to pursue this in-season test, and to approach the FIA asking for an opinion on it, and apparently not even beginning to get such an explicit agreement from its rivals (or even to give the slightest indication that the test was happening), even though he knew that other teams being invited was a requirement of the test, and for it to elude him all the while that what he was doing wasn't entirely regular, seems to stretch credulity. Brawn has many attributes; naivety isn't one of them. But the International Tribunal, while being critical of the secrecy of the test, was otherwise prepared to give Brawn, Merc and Pirelli the benefit of the doubt, and concluded that all had acted in good faith. Quite why they got this isn't clear.

Part of Mercedes's defence too was claiming its motives were in large part altruistic, seeking merely to assist Pirelli in ensuring that the tyres are safe (given the succession of tread failures earlier this year). In so doing it cited concern from the GPDA as well as presented an email from Charlie Whiting to Pirelli asking the company to ensure that its tyres were safe for the Canadian round as justification for its move. Yet as Graeme Lowdon of Marussia noted on television later, if Pirelli believes its tyres are unsafe then it would be news to the other teams, and thus it would only irk them more rather than alleviate concerns. And for Mercedes, or any F1 team for that matter, to spend all of the money required for a three-day test selflessly would require something of a Damascene conversion. Moreover, whatever the concerns it doesn't justify taking the matter into your own hands.

So, what does it all reflect? Kicking around the lenient punishment somewhere may be tacit admission that the FIA hasn't covered itself it glory in this matter. The Tribunal's 20-page document explaining the finding indicated that while Mercedes hadn't got a final permission to test from the FIA, only a preliminary and conditional one, it was understandable why the FIA's communications gave them the impression that they did have such permission and 'Mercedes had no reason to believe that approval had not been given'. The verdict on some level may also be tacit admission that the FIA's regulations could be tighter on this matter. Indeed, that the FIA vowed after the Tribunal to 'learn lessons' as well as tighten its control of testing seems to suggest that's the direction of the governing body's thinking. It has some work to do, clearly.

The FIA - not covering itself in glory?
Mercedes and Pirelli also got brownie points for seeking to go through the right channels on it all by running it past the FIA in advance. The Tribunal's explanation made mention of this. But surely the defence that the regulation breach was inadvertent only goes so far. For the rest of us in other walks of life, saying breaches of rules were inadvertent doesn't ordinarily amount to much of a defence. And as mentioned, some of Mercedes's subsequent actions didn't entirely suggest good faith.

Perhaps too at some point in the process the implications occurred of humiliating Mercedes and in effect chasing he marque out of F1, given that as a manufacturer there's always the risk of it leaving the sport at a moment's notice, and that Mercedes is not just a constructor but also an engine supplier. Further it is one in an age wherein F1 isn't overloaded with engine suppliers (the three-pointed star supplies three teams now and will supply four in 2014).

But perhaps there's something cultural going on here too. Ferrari of course isn't above politics, but in its reaction to this (in the always entertaining Horse Whisperer column) it did note that the current common practice in sanctioning rule breaches in F1 is merely to say 'stop it and don't do it again' and for the matter to rest there. And this Testgate outcome seems right down the same line. Such a response seems more befitting of a gentlemen's club than of out in the real world. I'm not one of the world's hangers and floggers (hopefully), but nevertheless rule breaches ought to have consequences - that's life. To not have them - or not to any great extent anyway - amounts to anarchy.

What happens next remains to be seen, but you'd think that some of the anticipated reverberations won't be large now. The speculation that the Tribunal verdict would be used as a means for Charlie Whiting to be forced out as F1 race director (possibly to be replaced by Giorgio Ascanelli) and for Pirelli to be forced out as tyre supplier (and be replaced by Michelin), in both cases the latest phase of the Todt vs. Bernie power play, seem rather wide of the mark. Pirelli though has yet to react, and its response to the case and its being reprimanded will be fascinating given it's stuck throughout to the expressed position that as a supplier rather than a competitor it was not subject to the disciplinary process.

And Ross Brawn, in Max Mosley's words, appears to have 'got away with it'. Many reckoned that had the Tribunal been more critical then he would have been the sacrificial lamb. Brawn had shown willingness to put his neck - and only his neck - on the line, and the Mercedes company had raised the stakes by stressing 'sporting ethics' in its pronouncements. That the Tribunal concluded that all had acted in good faith will be enough to save Brawn's skin you'd imagine.

And many other teams won't be happy of course. But without further evidence coming to light it's hard to see how that can amount to any more than simmering resentment. The matter will therefore fester somewhat, and no doubt some will expect payback in whatever form at a near future point.

Perhaps good will come of it though. The lack of in-season testing opportunities, for Pirelli and everyone else, is somewhere near to the crux of this matter, and this demonstrates that testing isn't nearly as prohibitive as some had been claiming. And right on cue four in-season tests have been promised for 2014. Getting teams to agree on the best way to go about this and everything else - another matter near the crux of this - will be a tougher nut to crack as always.

Thus we should have the end of this rather sorry episode, of the substantive part anyway. But it's a matter that leaves more questions than answers. And I don't know about you, but to me today didn't feel especially like closure.

1 comment:

  1. Seamus Cascarino22 June 2013 at 02:50

    While it is, admittedly, a decision that's "light", and not in keeping with the severity of the offense (And I'm a Mercedes fan =D). I like it purely because Brawn can tell Lauda to go climb a tree =)

    I did rather dislike how Lauda came out at the very last minute and tried to distance himself. Maybe I'm being a bit harsh, and he's a little gun-shy given what happened at Jaguar. Ohwell ...