F1 racing ‘Tire-gate’ charges involving manufacturer Pirelli aired at hearing

Mercedes pleads for leniency at a Paris hearing for taking part in tire testing that rivals called unfair.

PARIS — Mercedes pleaded for leniency from the governing body of motorsport, saying it deserves no more than minor punishment for taking part in tire-testing that rival Formula One (F1) teams claimed was unfair.

Lawyers for Mercedes, tire manufacturer Pirelli and the International Automobile Federation (FIA) rifled through thick binders of evidence as they debated back and forth at an all-day disciplinary tribunal hearing in Paris.

A thrust of the FIA’s argument was that the 1,000 kilometres (620 miles) of private tire testing with Pirelli in May in Barcelona offered an advantage to Mercedes that other teams didn’t get. F1 bans the use of current-season cars for track tests.

In response, Mercedes 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 tires safer.
The tire manufacturer, for its part, outright rejected the FIA’s case, calling the charges against it “totally inadmissible.”

Immediately at stake was whether Mercedes and Pirelli would be sanctioned. A longer-term worry for F1 was whether the case risked antagonizing 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 tires 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 panel of four judges and a hearing president.

For the FIA, lawyer Mark Howard said Pirelli trialled a variety of tires, organized 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 reasoned. “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 tires 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. Red Bull and Ferrari protested about the test after it happened.

Mercedes lawyer Paul Harris insisted the German team got no sporting advantage, not least because they didn’t know what tires 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 tires that have shed chunks of rubber, disintegrated on occasion, and faced criticism from some drivers this season.

“Our motivation was safety,” he said. “We should actually be applauded for having that as our motivation.”

Any rules-breach by Mercedes “is, in the scheme of things, a minor infringement,” he argued. “If there is to be any sanction, then it has to be a minor one.”

Harris suggested nothing more serious than a reprimand, a suspended sanction or, at most, preventing Mercedes from joining other F1 teams when they run their cars in July at a three-day test for young drivers.