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Mercedes, Pirelli get little more than wrist-slap for tire test

06/21/2013 09:36 EDT | Updated 08/21/2013 05:12 EDT
PARIS - Mercedes and its drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were cleared Friday to continue their charge for the Formula One championship after the team escaped with a reprimand for violating rules on testing.

The wrist-slap for Mercedes and Pirelli from the tribunal of motorsport's governing body avoided the prospect of antagonizing two big players in F1: The German automaker who also supplies engines to other teams and the series' sole supplier of tires.

The International Automobile Federation (FIA) tribunal ruled Mercedes breached F1's rules that bar the use of current cars for in-season track tests.

Mercedes and Pirelli were reprimanded, the lowest possible penalty on a sliding scale of severity. The panel also barred the German team from joining other F1 competitors at a planned three-day test session for young drivers in July.

That was a punishment which Mercedes' lawyer suggested to the tribunal at its all-day hearing in Paris on Thursday.

Friday's ruling brought a low-key end to what has been a tumultuous and typically F1 drama.

The furor over Mercedes' private tire tests for Pirelli in May highlighted both the complexity of F1's rules and internal politics and how the teams are constantly peering over each other's shoulders to get an advantage or prevent others from doing so.

The ruling lifted the worry that Mercedes could be heavily fined, barred from races or docked points for providing Pirelli with its 2013 car for the tire tests in Barcelona. The German team also provided Pirelli with its drivers Rosberg and Hamilton, who wore anonymous black helmets to avoid attracting attention.

Alain Prost called the penalties "very soft."

"I was expecting maybe something much stronger," the four-time world champion told The Associated Press. "It could have been much worse."

But the Frenchman, speaking at a Renault engine unveiling, also noted Mercedes' importance for F1 and suggested the ruling could avoid making waves.

"It may be positive for Formula One that they don't break the equilibrium, you know, between the teams," he said.

Mercedes said it will not appeal and that it "accepts the proportionate penalties of a reprimand and suspension from the forthcoming Young Driver Test."

"Mercedes looks forward to working with the FIA and its fellow competitors to establish a more rigorous procedure for testing in the future, particularly to support the appointed tire supplier," it said in a statement.

In theory, barring Mercedes from the young drivers' training could cancel out any performance advantage the team may have gained from participating in the Barcelona tests, because it will not be allowed to run its car while other teams do.

The tribunal suggested in its ruling that it hopes this will level the playing field, saying it aimed "insofar as it is reasonably practicable" to put the other teams "in a similar position to that which Mercedes is in."

However, there will likely be debate about whether stopping Mercedes from testing with young drivers represents much of a blow. The Barcelona tests in May provided Mercedes and its star drivers Hamilton and Rosberg with track time just one week before the Monaco Grand Prix that Rosberg then won.

The tribunal determined Pirelli and Mercedes did not intend for the German team to get any unfair advantage from the testing. Mercedes told the tribunal that it took part because it wanted to help Pirelli improve the safety of its tires, which have shed chunks of rubber, failed and been criticized by drivers on occasion this season.

"Neither Pirelli nor Mercedes acted in bad faith," the tribunal ruled.

However, it also said the tests did, in fact, help Mercedes.

"Mercedes did obtain some material advantage (even if only by way of confirmation of what had not gone wrong) as a result of the testing, which, at least potentially, gave it an unfair sporting advantage," it said.

The case exposed confusion in F1 about the rules that govern testing.

Mercedes said it asked veteran FIA executive Charlie Whiting, who oversees the running of F1 races, for permission to run its 2013 car in the Pirelli tests and that he gave his authorization.

But the FIA argued at the hearing that Whiting's opinion wasn't binding.

The FIA's tribunal, which it set up in 2010 for disciplinary cases such as this, largely absolved Mercedes, Pirelli and Whiting on this point.

"Both Pirelli and Mercedes disclosed to FIA at least the essence of what they intended to do in relation to the test and attempted to obtain permission for it; and Mercedes had no reason to believe that approval had not been given," the panel ruled.

It said Whiting also acted "in good faith and with the intention of assisting the parties and consistent with sporting fairness."

The FIA said it wants to tighten the rules.

"The FIA wishes that lessons are learnt from this case," it said in a statement. "The FIA will make sure, in association with all F1 teams, that its control of the testings is strengthened."

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AP video journalist Nicholas Garriga contributed from Le Bourget, France.

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