Mercedes-Pirelli: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

Rosberg leads Hamilton. The way it should have finished? (Photo Credit: Petronas Mercedes GP)

Later this week, Mercedes will appear at the FIA tribunal to answer charges that they performed a secret tyre test following the Spanish Grand Prix.

You’ve probably already read a lot about this. It is alleged that the team’s race drivers completed 1000km of tyre testing for Pirelli in a 2013 car. Mercedes say that it is Pirelli’s fault that none of the other teams knew anything about it. Pirelli, as you’d expect, say that it was well within their rights to test with a current car, and that Mercedes were the only team who agreed to it.

The whole situation hasn’t gone down well in the Formula One paddock though, with teams demanding answers. But, whatever happens on Thursday, it seems like there will be huge ramifications for the sport.

The FIA is in a difficult position. In my eyes, they have three options. They could penalise Mercedes, not penalise them but just penalise Pirelli, or take no action at all. Unfortunately, none of the three would have a great outcome for the sport.

Let’s start with the latter. Certainly, it is possible that Mercedes will get off scot-free. The team appear very confident that they haven’t broken any rules, and that there is no reason why they should be penalised.

If the FIA agree with this, it will set a dangerous precedent. You can only imagine what the reaction of the rest of the teams will be, and it won’t be a good one. We could therefore end up with a situation where all the teams suddenly go off testing at will, testing tyres or whatever else they choose.  Budgets, which the FIA have tried to control by banning testing, will rocket. But the teams will argue that given Mercedes wasn’t penalised, they shouldn’t be either.

In this situation, the FIA would essentially show that it has lost control of its own series, with needlessly messy rules that can’t be policed, which just seem to get the sport in a huge mess, as the team orders furore did a number of years ago.  

You could argue that they have already lost control of the sport, given this situation came to light in the first place.

So that is one situation, but what about if they did penalise Mercedes?

A penalty could be anything from a fine, points being docked, or, in the most extreme circumstances, a race ban.

But, again, there are risks.

A story emerged from Autocar today, saying that the shareholders of Mercedes believe the team should quit Formula One should they receive a penalty.

Of course, this would not only be a drastic response (and almost certainly make them look guilty anyway) but a rather wasteful one given the huge resources the team has already put to producing a 2014 car and engine. Additionally, it is believed that Mercedes are committed to Formula One till at least 2017.

This could be seen as a form of blackmail, of course, to try and put the FIA off penalising them. The FIA could not penalise them to keep them sweet, and face the situation outlined above, or penalise them and face the risk of upsetting one of the few manufacturers left in Formula One. In the worst case scenario, it’d result in them quitting the sport and going to race elsewhere.

Given Honda is the only new manufacturer to take an interest in the new regulations so far (but won’t enter as an engine supplier till 2015), is that really a risk the FIA wants to take?

The last possible option that remains open to them would be just to penalise Pirelli. Given Pirelli are a supplier, and not a competitor, that’d most likely result in a fine of some sort. But as with Mercedes, this is a risk that could backfire spectacularly.

Pirelli have also made a threat about quitting the sport. If the FIA penalised them, it would, more likely than not, be the last straw for them. The problem with that, of course, is that Formula One currently does not have a deal in place with Pirelli, or any other company, to supply tyres in 2014.

Should Pirelli quit, who could replace them? Bridgestone and Hankook have already ruled themselves out, and while Michelin hasn’t, it’d be unlikely that they would be able to get ready in such a short time frame, especially given that they have had no F1 experience in eight years.

The sport would then be in the ridiculous position of having no tyres.

It is evident then, that there is a lot riding on this tribunal. It will be up to the FIA to decide which lesser of evils they’d prefer.

Whatever their decision on Thursday is, rest assured, it probably won’t be the last you’ll hear of this saga.