Formula 1 Tyre Test Scandal: Possible Punishments for Mercedes
Mercedes and Pirelli will find themselves in the dock at the FIA International Tribunal (IT) this Thursday (20 June) as Formula One's "Tyregate" controversy approaches its conclusion.
It all stems from a "secret" tyre test back in May, held by Pirelli.
Accusations and press releases have been flying around the paddock for weeks now. Finger-pointing seems to be the order of the day, with everyone blaming someone else for the mess.
Their rivals claim Mercedes have broken the sporting regulations which ban in-season testing. The team and Pirelli dispute that, claiming the test was legal under the terms of Pirelli's contract and that they had the FIA's permission.
Of course, the FIA say they didn't.
The decision on who to punish, and what the punishment will be, will be made by at least three of the 12 judges elected to the IT for three-year terms in 2011. Due to the nationality of the parties involved, the one Italian (Pirelli) and two German (Mercedes) judges are excluded from selection.
Though elected by the FIA, the IT operates independently of the governing body.
It's impossible to say who'll be blamed for what, but that isn't stopping us from guessing.
The Facts We Know
Among the finger-pointing and uncertainty, there are a few bits and pieces of information which are known to be absolute fact.
Between May 15-17, immediately after the Spanish Grand Prix, Mercedes and Pirelli carried out a three-day test at the Circuit de Catalunya. The distance covered was not more than 1000km.
Pirelli set the ball rolling by asking Mercedes to take part—the test was a Pirelli test. The FIA were aware the test was taking place.
Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg took part, wearing unmarked helmets. They used a current 2013 Mercedes F1 W04.
Most of the work was on tyres for the 2014 season.
Though some of the testing was on tyres proposed to replace the current ones, we now know that none of the tyres tested will be used in 2013.
The facts are easy—but it becomes somewhat muddled beyond them. From the information available (and if we're to believe all statements), everyone is innocent and everyone is guilty.
Mercedes say they had permission from the FIA to do the test, and that an FIA observer was present.
The FIA say they didn't receive assurances other teams had been given the opportunity to do the test, which they needed.
Pirelli say they emailed everyone last year about this very topic, and hardly anyone replied.
They also booked the circuit in their name, say that the test was not a secret and claim Mercedes had no idea what was being tested at any given time. Oh, and they also had the FIA's approval.
And they all apparently have proof they're not in the wrong. One suspects parents and teachers will be following this much easier than the rest of us.
The rules state this sort of in-season testing is banned. But they also state Pirelli can carry out 1000 km tests in the interest of safety, using a "representative car" supplied by one of the teams.
Does this line in their contract overrule the F1 sporting regulations? That appears to be the main question. Next up is deciding whether it was an intentional breach of the rules by Mercedes, an honest mistake or something in the middle.
That will affect the level of punishment.
Whatever is decided, when a verdict is reached the blame is probably going to be spread over all three parties.
But the FIA (not actually in the dock, but facing accusations) aren't going to fine themselves, and there isn't much anyone to can do to Pirelli.
Except maybe ban them, but then the novelty of cars without tyres would soon wear off.
So if found guilty, the punishment given to Mercedes will make the headlines. Let's see what that could be.
Option 1: Complete Exclusion from the 2013 Championship
At the top of the punishment scale is complete exclusion for the team from the 2013 Championship.
This would mean Mercedes could not compete in the remaining races, the drivers and constructors' points already acquired would be taken away and the record books would show nothing for Mercedes in 2013.
Go to jail. Do not pass go.
Previously given to: Tyrrell in 1984.
Or rather, as close to zero as it's possible to get without actually being zero.
This punishment would send a very strong message to anyone else considering "bending" the rules, and none of their rivals could complain that they'd got off too lightly.
While Mercedes do not have the clout of Ferrari, they are extremely important to F1. With the exception of Fiat (who own Ferrari), they are the only major manufacturer fully involved in the sport, and have a huge global presence.
They run a big-budget team, supply their engines to two other teams (three in 2014), and have contracts to provide the Safety and Medical Cars. They're into F1 in a big way.
But more important to the bosses at Mercedes (the ones in Stuttgart, not on the pit wall) is the road car division, which forms the bulk of their business. Few companies in world have as strong a reputation among consumers as Mercedes.
Bad publicity is the last thing they want, and if this punishment is handed down, there's a good chance they'll simply decide F1 isn't worth the hassle.
And if the publicity doesn't get them, the huge financial beating such a punishment would give will.
Not going to happen.
Option 2: Exclusion from the 2013 Constructors' Championship
The second option would be to exclude Mercedes from the 2013 constructors' championship.
All points would be taken, and future points wouldn't count. The drivers' championship would not be affected.
Previously given to: McLaren in 2007.
Likelihood: Extremely Low
Mercedes aren't going to win the constructors' championship this year, and for them there's no ego-boost for coming second, third or fourth. Anything less than first is failure, so on the face of it this would be meaningless.
However, prize money in F1 (a massive 63% of the sport's total profits) is split between the leading ten teams.
Some is split equally between them, and the rest is awarded based on their finishing positions in the constructors' championship. The highest finisher gets the most, down to the lowest getting the least.
Exclusion would place Mercedes 11th, which means zero prize money.
The exact figures are notoriously difficult to acquire (and the splits even more so), but one figure kicking around is a total prize fund of $700m.
A second, third or fourth place finish would probably be worth somewhere in the region of $80-$100m. 11th place would be worth zero.
So this punishment would effectively be a fine of $80-$100m—and a huge reputation battering.
Seems way too harsh for the crime, and runs the risk of Mercedes deciding they've had enough of the sport.
Option 3: Exclusion from One or More Races
The next step down would be to ban Mercedes for one or more races, but not the entire championship.
This may or may not include stripping Mercedes of past results.
Previously given to: BAR in 2005.
Likelihood: Very Low—More Likely Suspended
A ban from one or more future races would be a strong punishment which would send a clear message that rule-breaking will not be tolerated.
It's highly unlikely any past results—such as Nico Rosberg's Monaco win—will be taken away from Mercedes. The drivers aren't to blame, and taking away results they have already earned would be very harsh.
The major issue with this punishment is the knock-on effects. Banning Mercedes—and in turn, two of the best drivers on the grid, one of whom is arguably F1's global poster-boy—would be a punishment to the organisers of the race(s) involved too.
Compounding this problem is the calendar—next up are the British and German races. Taking Hamilton out of the first would be damaging, but taking Mercedes and Rosberg out of the second would be unthinkable.
A race ban suspended for two years, only activated in the event of further rule-breaking, is more likely.
Option 4: Points Deduction
The fourth step on the ladder is a deduction of constructors' championship points.
This would potentially affect the final finishing position of the team in the championship, and in turn adversely affect their prize money share and (perhaps) pit garage placement for 2014.
It's impossible to say how many points they might lose. The actual figure will probably be lower, but let's work with an upper limit of 100.
Previously given to: No one that I can recall.
Likelihood: Quite High
Though to fans it's usually an afterthought, the constructors' championship is hugely important to the teams because their prize money share is based on it.
This punishment would ease the ire of the other teams (Red Bull, Ferrari and Lotus in particular) somewhat, by removing Mercedes from the top three fight. Whatever gain they made (very little) would be wiped out several times over.
It's also a firm slap to Mercedes without affecting their drivers, and looks quite nasty to the casual fan.
Of course, they wouldn't really lose much. On current form they might finish second (more likely third), and with a 100-point deduction they'd probably recover to fourth by the end of the year. But that's still a financial hit of something like $10-$25m.
Tolerable all round.
Option 5: Fine
The lightest punishment (except a zero-punishment reprimand) would be a heavy fine.
This wouldn't be the wrist-slap sort often handed out in the sporting world—we're talking well into the millions, possibly tens of millions.
Previously given to: To a minor degree, Ferrari in 2010.
A fine is an extremely safe option to take. Mercedes can afford a reasonable sum, and the FIA can loudly proclaim they issued a fine which to the average person in the street looks obscene.
And convincing the fans they're intolerant of cheating is very important for the image of the sport.
On the downside, it isn't really a "sporting" punishment. Of course it might knock on to other areas by taking a chunk out of their budget, but their rivals are unlikely to pay much heed to that argument.
Unless the sum is absolutely monstrous, a fine could be seen from within the sport as a bit of a let-off. That wouldn't do, because the purpose of punishment is to dissuade others from doing the same.
But the clarification of the rules should do that. A fine is likely.
There has been much talk bouncing around the paddock that Mercedes were planning on removing Team Principle Ross Brawn at the end of the year. The Englishman has also stated that it was his decision to do the tyre test.
It's been made clear over recent weeks that the buck stops with him, so could a deal be quietly made to reduce the penalty if he agrees to step down?
Others at risk include long-time FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting. If it turns out he definitely did give permission for the test to occur with 2013 cars—as has been reported—his might be another neck on the line.
An outside shot (not going to happen, but it'd stop everyone else complaining) would be make Pirelli fund an identical test for the other 10 teams, so everyone gets whatever small benefit Mercedes got.
More likely would be a rolling head or two at the tyre company—if not by the FIA's request, by the board of directors' decision.
If a full guilty verdict is passed down placing a substantial amount of blame on Mercedes, the most likely outcome is probably a points deduction along with a fine. Add in a suspended race ban, and that'll be it.
Anything in excess of that would be too much, unless the intention is to send a message.
That's unlikely, given that the only message it would send would be to some very powerful folk over in Stuttgart—and the message wouldn't be well received.
But will that "substantial amount of blame" materialise? That's largely down to how much blame is dumped on the FIA's own doorstep.
That might be quite a lot, and Mercedes might be judged as a relatively innocent party. If that happens, the punishment may be small. We'll see.
But before we go, let's pause for a moment to reflect on how ridiculous this whole thing is.
F1 is one of the most rigidly professional sports on the planet, and here we have one of the most well-funded, well-managed teams caught up in a mess with the up-on-high governing body and a huge multinational tyre company with revenues in excess of $6bn.
My email says this! No, my email says something else. My lawyer said it was alright. Mine said it was OK but only if you did this. My email says my lawyer said...
Maybe instead of fines and punishments, they should just send everyone involved on a three-day course to teach them the dark arts of interpersonal communication.