Testing Times

The dismal 2004 season was invariably eclipsed by the political disputes taking over the sport. This year the bitter division between the majority of the teams on one side, and the FIA and Ferrari on the other, threatens to ruin the action on the track and cause irreparable damage to F1.

It is an appalling indictment of the FIA’s governance of the sport, and Max Mosley’s presidency in particular, that matters have been allowed to get so far out of hand. But more of that shortly. To begin with – just how have we ended up with two deeply antagonistic factions jeopardising the future of Formula One?

The immediate roots lie in Ferrari’s dominant and controversial 2002 season. The Scuderia took 15 wins from 17 races, but exciting races were scarce, casual viewers turned off in droves and substantial numbers of dedicated fans were outraged by Ferrari’s blatant imposition of team tactics – first to seal Schumacher’s championship, and later to gracelessly bestow a trio of victories on Rubens Barrichello.

Panicked by the loss of viewers, the FIA rushed through a revised regulations package for 2003 to improve the sport. The decision to switch the points system from 10-6-4-3-2-1 for 1st-6th to 10-8-6-5-4-3-2-1 for 1st-8th clearly hit Ferrari harder than any of the other teams. Ferrari complained vociferously about the unfairness they perceived in the new rules.

Although Ferrari went on to win the championship, they have not forgotten how the 2003 rules compromised them. As a result they pursue their own strict agenda on matters of rules changes. There are two pressures upon the teams to continue to make these changes: one, to improve safety, usually by reducing cornering speeds; two, to reduce costs, and thereby reduce the likelihood that some teams will collapse under financial pressures. These two aims are seldom complementary, and Ferrari do not improve matters by vetoing every decision that may in the slightest way jeopardise their dominance of the sport.

In no area has this been more apparent than the issue of test sessions. In 2004, the ten teams spent USD $359.7m on testing. The biggest spenders were McLaren, Williams and Ferrari, all paying around the USD $60-64m each. But Ferrari only pay a fraction in track hire costs as they have free rein at the Fiorano and Mugello circuits, and so complete far more actual testing than their rivals do.

At the end of 2004, nine of the ten teams put a proposal to the FIA that testing be limited to a set number of days per team per year. A simple and enforceable solution to the excess expenditure. The dissenting team was Ferrari, but, remarkably, all the other teams of all sizes and incomes agreed to it – from corporate monolith Toyota to comparative minnows Minardi. Even Peter Sauber, risking his Ferrari customer engine deal, joined the other teams, believing, no doubt, that the FIA, Ferrari and Jean Todt would see sense. When Ferrari refused to agree to the testing accord, and the FIA refused to enforce it (despite having used dubious arbitrary powers to enforce all manner of unwelcome rules changes from 2004 onward) the ‘group of nine’ resolved to stick it out and continue to support the testing agreement, in the hope that Ferrari would eventually see the light.

Those hopes were extinguished in the first two races of 2005 when it emerged that Ferrari, and their Bridgestone tyres in particular, were miles off the pace. While the ‘group of nine’ stuck to their limited testing days, not testing in the week before a Grand Prix, and not undertaking simultaneous tests at different circuits, Ferrari have done all three in their desperate bid to claw back performance. Since the beginning of the year, Ferrari drivers have attended a total of 101 test days – over 20% more than any other team.

What is more damning is that Ferrari have done substantially more testing since the first race of the season than any other team. Since the Australian Grand Prix, Ferrari have undertaken 32 driver days of testing – 34% more than fellow 2005 strugglers BAR and 44% more than McLaren. And this discounts the two-day test Ferrari ran at Valencia during the Australian Grand Prix weekend! The message is clear: Ferrari do not want to compete on a level playing field.

It is inconceivable that any team could continue to adhere to the limited testing programme and not be routed by the Scuderia come the end of the season. This presents them with two options: stick to the agreement and be beaten by Ferrari, or break the agreement and probably still get beaten by Ferrari because, as Schumacher’s pace in Imola showed, they now have a massive head-start. It is a disgrace to the sport that the very teams who put forward a proposal to end the insanity of unrestricted testing should be forced into a lose-lose situation by Ferrari’s greedy intransigence and the FIA’s spinelessness.

In their defence, Ferrari protest that limiting testing per team per day would unfairly disadvantage them as they are the only competitive team to run on Bridgestone tyres, and they would fall behind in tyre development relative to Michelin. Of course, this arrangement with Bridgestone is exactly what Ferrari cultivated of their own accord, forcing first McLaren, then BAR, then Sauber off the Japanese rubber as Ferrari demanded the tyres be designed precisely to their car’s requirements. Their counter-offer to restrict testing to a fixed distance per tyre supplier is not a serious one. It would leave their rivals with virtually no testing and Ferrari with three times more at their disposal than any other front-running team – precisely the same advantage they will have by the end of the year if they continue to test at their current rate.

There is only one light in which Ferrari seem at least partly blame-free, which is that any seriously competitive team will always exploit any sporting or political advantage open to them in order to succeed. The true culprits are the FIA in general, and Mosley in particular, for indulging them in their power trip. Mosley plays the political game for no reason other than that he gets a kick out of it. After thirteen years has President he has grown weary of mediating negotiations between ten teams all trying to screw the best deal out of each other, and invariably sides with Ferrari. The only conceivable explanation for which is the oft-cited and often challenged mantra that ‘without Ferrari, there is no Formula One.’

We may be about to find out whether or not that old chestnut is true. And we’ll find out the hard way.

Sources: F1 Racing Magazine, April 2005; Forix.com, Autosport-Atlas.com. Statistics are accurate up to and including 27th April 2005

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