Pushing the envelope

Jon Noble - Autosport © James Moy Photography

Jon Noble – Autosport
© James Moy Photography

You can tell when Jon Noble is onto something. His nose goes down, his tail starts wagging, and like a foxhound he’s off, caught by the scent of a massive story. He’s a newshound, pure and simple. He is a good friend and, I’m not ashamed to admit, I both respect his work and envy his skill and tenacity as a journalist tremendously.

Jon’s tail has rarely wagged faster than it did on Sunday morning in Monaco this year. He’d got the scent of something juicy, and over the past few weeks what probably started off as a throw away comment by someone’s loose lips, ended up as the biggest story of the season and an International Tribunal.

These kind of stories fascinate me. As a student of law and politics long before I entered a Formula 1 paddock, the concept of rules and regulations, the Concorde Agreement as a binding constitution, contracts between suppliers and rights holders, teams and governing bodies absolutely fascinates me. Sure I love the sport for the racing, but I can’t deny a little bit of political and legal intrigue gets my blood flowing too.

The Montreal weekend was thus a wonderful opportunity to simply stand back and people watch. In particular, the team boss presser on Friday. Paul Hembery had pulled out on advice of his lawyers, so we had the three main protagonists in the affair, plus Martin Whitmarsh and Monisha Kaltenborn. Martin stayed out of it, while Monisha was her usual eloquent, legally astute, salient, brilliant self.

The big guns, however, were an amateur body language reader’s dream.

The Montreal Friday Presser © James Moy Photography

The Montreal Friday Presser
© James Moy Photography

Ross sat there, like a rock in a slow moving river, letting everything wash over him. No nerves. No hesitations. Nothing given away. Cool Hand Luke.

Stefano twitched and turned. He played with his fingers, rolling his wedding around on his wedding finger. His answers were clipped, his voice seemingly agitated. This was somewhere he didn’t want to be.

And Christian. Strong at the start, his back as straight as the bat he was playing. But as the conference went on he started to slump forward, his chin now resting on his hands, sliding up to rub his nose, his lips pursed, his eyes like daggers into Brawn’s back. With every evasive answer Brawn gave, Horner’s anger boiled inside him.

It was brilliant.

It was a great snapshot in time. But when they came out to talk to we TV crews afterwards, I found their responses to the questions we handed out even more interesting.

What interested me most was Christian Horner’s immediate and categorical comment that Red Bull had been approached to conduct a test for Pirelli but had turned it down as it had clearly breached regulations. I asked Horner to expand on this. What had made him so sure? He avoided a direct answer. So I pushed again. I asked if Pirelli had asked, specifically, that Red Bull run a 2013 car. Again he avoided a direct response, so I cut in and asked Yes or No.

Yes, Christian claimed that is precisely what Pirelli had asked for.

When talking to Ross and Stefano, what was interesting is that when I asked that same question, they both used the same wording in their answer… that Pirelli had asked for a REPRESENTATIVE car.

I believe that this is what Red Bull was also asked to provide, and if I understand correctly, until this all kicked off, they were in fact due to conduct a similar test (having turned down Pirelli’s original advance) later in the season.

Strained relationships © James Moy Photography

Strained relationships
© James Moy Photography

It’s the definition of what constitutes “representative” that has created so much outrage and moral indignation.

I’m not going to debate what went on with Mercedes at the test. That’s been done. We know how it differs to the Ferrari tests. We know what the Tribunal decided.

And yet we still have people insisting that Mercedes cheated. That they got away with murder. We have ludicrous claims that the testing ban is now worthless and that teams will just go off and test when they want and sacrifice the Young Driver Test.

I understand why these things are being said.

But Formula 1 is about pushing the envelope. It’s about seeing what you can get away with under the regulations.

What Mercedes did was actually quite smart. An in-season tyre test is not covered by the sporting regulations definitively. There is merely a stipulation that, other than the Young Drivers Test, testing is banned. But here comes Pirelli with a contract saying it’s OK, and an FIA legal department that says it is fine so long as everyone else has the chance to do something similar.

So Mercedes took their 2013 car. They acted, as the Tribunal stated, in good faith.

Afterall, we exist in a ludicrous situation where the control tyre supplier needs a representative car to develop their tyres, but regulations dictate that only an out of date model can be used. And when they want to develop tyres for the new generation of car, how is a car that isn’t even relevant to today supposed to help matters?

To me, this has much in common with flexi wings, advanced engine maps, double diffusers and off throttle exhaust blown diffusers. In each case over the past three seasons teams, often Red Bull, sometimes Brawn / Merc, pushed the envelope. They did something that wasn’t exactly in the spirit of the regulations, and so the regulations changed to outlaw the loophole which the teams had exploited.

To me, this entire affair was another such example of a team pushing a loophole. That loophole has now been closed.

Christian Horner is upset about what happened and with the Tribunal’s findings. But he’s probably even more upset that he didn’t send a 2013 car along to a Pirelli test IF Mercedes have gained as much from it as is being claimed. That was his choice. His ball to drop.

Ross Brawn arrives in Paris © James Moy Photography

Ross Brawn arrives in Paris
© James Moy Photography

I’m not condoning cheating. I’m merely saying, where such uncertainty over regulation existed, why not push? Do you think Ross Brawn, with the axe swinging ever closer to his neck at Mercedes, would have risked his and his team’s welfare if he hadn’t been convinced that what he was doing was, at the very least, defendable under the vagueness of the regulations as they stand?

And while we’re on that subject, I’m not overly convinced how much Mercedes really did learn. Particularly their drivers. Even Pirelli’s own testers have no real knowledge of what tyres theyre running. It’s not like Nico or Lewi would have been told, “OK Lads, we’ve bolted on some development super softs.” If I understand the way Pirelli do their tyre tests, they’d have asked the driver to go out, run 20 laps, 30 laps… whatever was required, and report their findings.

People point to how improved Mercedes form has been in the two races since the Barcelona test. All I would say is that neither Monaco nor Montreal is comparable with any of the races that went before. Let’s leave that question until after Silverstone and Germany. If the team drops, as I think they may in race trim, then we’ll know.

Ultimately this whole sorry affair has shown us what a pitiful regulatory state the sport exists in today. We have contracts at odds with regulation. We have a tyre supplier with one hand tied behind its back, fighting an unwinnable battle in trying to keep a commercial rights holder, a governing body and every team happy. Self interest from the teams blurs their vision, a lack of unity in FOTA weakens the very concept. The teams say they want to make the rules, but they can’t even agree on what type of boots their soldiers should march in. Who runs the sport? Where is the decisive action of the FIA President.

The testing ban probably is a fallacy. Christian Horner went on the record to say that every time a team runs a car it is learning, be it past or present. We know that teams use filming days to covertly test internals. How much does Ferrari learn from its Corsa Clienti programme? How much does Red Bull learn from its demo runs at WSR races? The answer may be zero. But we know the situation needs to change. And chances are, with the 2014 calendar, it will.

As will the regulations. And the Concorde.

It’s been said that if Max still ran the show, he’d have released new terms and given the teams a week to agree. The terms would have been so unthinkable, that the teams would have had to come together to agree. That’s how Max worked. That’s how Max won.

Todt is not the politician that Mosley was. And it seems to have slipped people’s attention or memory that the Frenchman pledged in his original electoral campaign that he would sit for one term and not a day longer.

He currently seeks re-election for a second term.

The one upshot is that the International Tribunal, one of very few meaningful changes made to the FIA structure by the current President, works. Its composition was above reproach, its findings clear, its punishment measured and representative. No $100million penalties here thank you very much.

The Tribunal, then, in more than one aspect, managed to find the definition of the word representative.

Now, if only we could find a body so wise and so devoid of self interest to sort out the regulatory mess the sport is in, we’d have a real result.

Can we drive off from this now please? © James Moy Photography

Can we drive off from this now please?
© James Moy Photography

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17 thoughts on “Pushing the envelope

  1. a) Mercedes didn’t push the rules. They broke the rules. This is recognised in the IT’s report. The official reason they didn’t get a penalty is because they thought they were doing something legal. The unofficial one is up for debate I am sure, but it might potentially have something to do with the FIA not wanting to drive Mercedes out of the sport. Just an idea…

    b) Both the team and the drivers learnt from the test. You can argue about how much, but there is a whole lot you learn when you run your car at a representative track, with representative tyres, for 3 days. Things you learn about tyre management might be specific to each tyre of course, but you can still try different tricks and see how the tyre reacts. The drivers will be able to recognise similarities and differences in the behaviour between current tyres and test tyres, and use what they’ve learnt in future races. You also learn a whole load about reliability, and you can at least try a bunch of new parts, even if we assume that no direct comparisons with old parts were allowed. It’s just that no one was there to check… They were also sent a testing report with “confidential information” by Pirelli. I’m sure that would have been interesting to read…

    c) The rules are incredibly clear in this respect. No in-season testing allowed apart from the specific exceptions that are clearly outlined. Mercedes *did* get away with murder, for political reasons. Some other teams would not get away with something as blatantly illegal as that.

    d) There are obviously discussions to be had about Pirelli testing and in-season testing and whether the sport needs more of it. This though has nothing to do with Mercedes going behind everyone’s backs and “gaining and unsporting advantage”. It’s a completely separate conversation.

  2. Lawyers are always looking for breaches (believe me, I know). What I don’t understand is how come the FIA legal department would say it’s OK when it’s clearly against the regulations.

    • The regulations say (something like) testing, other than specific types, cannot by carried out “by a competitor”. The FIA were asked if a test carried out by Pirelli (i.e. paid for and run by Pirelli, but using Mercedes cars/drivers plus the necessary support staff/systems to keep the car running) would be ok – Pirelli are not a competitor.

      The FIA said that the test could be seen that way and, therefore, would not be against the rules (again, my paraphrasing).

      I’m not arguing right or wrong, but this is how I understand the FIA to have said that this test was NOT against the rules.

  3. @”I’m not condoning cheating. I’m merely saying, where such uncertainty over regulation existed, why not push?”

    That’s the thing – there’s no reason not to. Especially if it turns out that the risks of punishment are as minimal as a Young Drivers’ Test ban. I think that’s the main outcome that leaves a bad taste – that the verdict showed Mercedes really had almost nothing to lose by “pushing” the rules.

    It’s one thing to exploit the regulations to every single comma in order to gain advantage, but when the regulations (well, not regulations as much as their execution) allow for a situation when the team is willing to take a gamble on something possibly illegal, knowing the consequences may be minimal, something’s properly wrong.

    I know there’s no way any other team could now recreate such test with Pirelli (and it definitely wouldn’t be “in good faith”), but this may open doors for similar extreme rule pushing in the future. And while pushing the Technical Regs is what the sport is already used to, trying to loophole Sporting Regulations is a completely different game in my opinion.

    • good point. i am sure this is the exact reasoning that red bull and ferrari are disappointed in the outcome. legal speak aside, how could anyone think that testing a current chassis was in good faith. that one is slightly beyond the pale. if ross and company found a way to go testing by being clever despite the rules, well then fine, but don’t cloak it in some kind of innocent mela culpa.

  4. I don’t think you meant the tribunal was impeachable. I think you meant it was either impeccable, or unimpeachable. Anyway, keep up the great work Will. Love your twitter feed.

  5. I always enjoy reading what you write, it is shame you do not write more on the blog, maybe if you did it would not be as thoughtful and enjoyable so less is more…..

  6. I. Like. The. Way. You. Write. This kerfuffle has left me feeling somewhat bewildered. In my black and white mind I firmly believed that there was a rigid tyre test procedure. Wrong. OK IT over, move on and back to racing. Would love to see F1 on NBCSC even a recording.

  7. Pingback: He said what?! – British Grand Prix edition | The Parade Lap

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