|© AP Photo/Luca Bruno
The governing body of motorsport argued Thursday that Mercedes broke the rules and got an unfair advantage over other teams by taking part in private in-season tyre testing with Pirelli.
Mercedes and Pirelli were answering the charges at a disciplinary tribunal hearing in Paris, convened by the International Automobile Federation (FIA). Lawyers and the judges pored over and leafed through thick binders of evidence as they debated back and forth and examined whether and how the German team might have benefitted from the 1,000 kilometres of tyre-testing with Pirelli in May in Barcelona. Formula 1 rules ban the use of current-season cars for track tests.
Essentially, the FIA argued that the test offered an advantage to Mercedes that other teams didn't get. Mercedes, in response, portrayed itself as having done a service to the whole of F1, because by offering up its car and drivers, it was helping Pirelli make its tyres safer. The Italian manufacturer, for its part, outright rejected the FIA's case, calling the charges against it "totally inadmissible."
Laying out the case for FIA, lawyer Mark Howard said Pirelli trialed a variety of tyres, organised the test and paid for the Barcelona circuit. But Mercedes' 2013 car, driven by current drivers Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, was used and this offered an advantage to the German team, Howard argued. The testing could have provided Mercedes with potentially valuable information about its cars and their reliability, he said.
"They have been enabled to do something which the other teams have not done," he said. "By testing the Mercedes car for three days, the 2013 car, with the current drivers and the current engineers, Mercedes may be said to have obtained an unfair advantage."
"Clearly there was data that was available to Mercedes," Howard told the panel of four judges and the hearing president. "It is difficult to say that Mercedes gained no benefits from the test."
Howard noted that Mercedes has suffered with the wear and failures of Pirelli tyres this season. That has given a comparative performance advantage to other teams, he said. To preserve that advantage, those teams might have objected in advance about the Mercedes test had they known about it, he suggested.
Immediately at stake was whether Mercedes and Pirelli would be sanctioned. A longer-term worry for F1 was whether the case risked antagonising two big players in the sport -- the German auto manufacturer that also supplies engines to other F1 teams and Pirelli, which supplies all of the tyres for motorsport's premier series.
"Pirelli cannot accept and will not accept that its image and the quality of its products and its credibility be tarnished because of a case which is not admissible and which is unfounded," lawyer Dominique Dumas, speaking for the manufacturer, told the tribunal.
Mercedes lawyer Paul Harris insisted the German team got no sporting advantage, not least because they didn't know what tyres Pirelli had put on their car. He argued these were purely and simply Pirelli tests: "They did it all, they were in charge of it all."
He also suggested the tests were warranted to help Pirelli improve the safety of its tyres that have shed chunks of rubber, disintegrated on occasion, and faced criticism from some drivers this season.
"We had safety concerns, as did our drivers," Harris said.
He also spoke at length about tests Ferrari conducted last year and this year with Pirelli, but wasn't charged for by the FIA. His suggestion appeared to be of double-standards. Ferrari driver Felipe Massa drove in at least one of the Italian team's tests with Pirelli, and they ran "significantly more" than 1,000 kilometres, he said.
"If we did these nefarious things to the fundamental principles (of sporting fairness) it cannot be the case that Ferrari didn't also do them," Harris said.
Howard, for the FIA, called the Ferrari test "a complete red herring." The FIA said it did look into a Pirelli tyre test involving Ferrari in Barcelona in April. But FIA President Jean Todt, who worked for Ferrari from 1993 to 2009, closed that case. The FIA said the Italian team used its 2011 car for the test, which didn't violate the ban on current cars being used for track testing.
Harris, however, said 2011 and 2013 cars are very similar, the performance differences "miniscule."
"They haven't even been charged by the FIA," he said of Ferrari.
Another bone of contention was whether Mercedes got prior approval for the test from the FIA. The team insisted that it did -- from Charlie Whiting, a veteran FIA executive who directs the running of F1 races, backed by the FIA's legal department. Howard, however, said Whiting's opinion wasn't binding and that he wasn't the right person to authorise such a test.
Howard said none of the other teams were invited to the testing and none were aware it was taking place.
"If Pirelli and Mercedes had been transparent and open about what was going on" other teams would have been able to say beforehand if they objected, he said.
Harris, for Mercedes, conceded: "We can see now with the benefit of hindsight how other teams may have become suspicions."
He acknowledged that Rosberg and Hamilton were asked to wear black helmets, masking their identity, for the testing. Mercedes now regrets that "and we apologise for that," Harris said.
The FIA said the tribunal ruling "will be published as soon as possible after the hearing."