With two wins in the past three grands prix following a secret tire test in Spain, it’s getting a bit difficult to believe that Mercedes didn’t gain an advantage by putting the Pirelli rubber through 1,000 kilometres of trials.
That’s because the Mercedes Formula One car that was often the fastest over one lap in qualifying – yet could not translate that speed into consistent race pace – magically seems to have solved the tire wear issues that kept it out of the winner’s circle.
In Sunday’s British Grand Prix, Nico Rosberg took advantage of a rare car failure for Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel to score his second win of 2013. While fate played a role in the victory, it also looks obvious that the Mercedes has become a title contender almost as quickly as its tires once wore in races.
After his victory, the German’s response to the question on everyone’s lips was swift and succinct.
“For sure, yeah – definitely,” he said when asked if Mercedes would have been able to win without the Spanish test with tire supplier Pirelli.
It would be doubtful that the rest of the teams in the paddock feel so sure.
Many felt Mercedes gained an unfair advantage after using its 2013 car and race drivers in the May tire test. All track testing is banned during the season, except for the annual Young Driver Test, which is for racers who have less than three F1 starts under their belts. Pirelli is allowed to test its tires during the season, but that is normally done with its own drivers and a car that is a few years old.
After the Spanish test became public, Mercedes was dragged in front of the sport’s International Tribunal late last month and slapped with a reprimand. It was also banned from this year’s Young Driver Test, which takes place July 17-19 at the Silverstone Circuit that hosts the British Grand Prix.
Many felt Mercedes got off lightly.
“I think it was very soft,” said four-time world champion Alain Prost after the verdict.
“I was expecting maybe something much stronger – it was mistake or an infringement of the rules.– it could have been much worse than that.”
Other possible punishments on the table were the stripping of points, suspension from races, fines or even being thrown out of the 2013 championship altogether.
Although the race win should be enough to raise doubts about Mercedes’ claims that it didn’t benefit, Rosberg’s teammate Lewis Hamilton’s race in Britain added to the evidence. The 2008 world champion suffered a heart-wrenching rear tire failure while leading in front of his home crowd, but he recovered to finish an impressive fourth after dropping to dead last early in the race.
Even though he was aided by two safety car periods that allowed him to make up handfuls of ground, seeing his silver car slice through the field without chewing up its rear tires spoke volumes about just how far Mercedes has come in a few weeks.
In fact, since the secret test with Pirelli, Mercedes moved from fourth overall in the Constructor’s Standings to second, leapfrogging both Lotus and Ferrari. Not to mention the fact that both Hamilton and Rosberg had no difficulty matching the race pace of reigning three-time champion Vettel at Silverstone. Although the Red Bull is not the best on its tires at high-lateral load circuits like Silverstone, it has proven to be better than the Mercedes in past grands prix at tracks with similar characteristics.
Vettel remains the world championship leader despite leaving Britain without a single point due to his retirement. He leads with 132 points, 21 more than Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso who placed third on Sunday. Lotus’ Kimi Räikkönen is third with 98. Hamilton is fourth with 89, two points ahead of Red Bull’s Mark Webber who finished second on Sunday. Rosberg is sixth on 82 points. Drivers get 25 points for a win.
For his part, Rosberg, who also won a few weeks ago in Monaco, chalked Mercedes’ new-found speed up to good old hard work.
“Definitely the team has done such a good job during the season,” he said.
“Already in the winter, to come up with such a quick car, which we’ve had all year in qualifying, and now also progressing with tire management and getting that better and better to allow us to win races now, that’s fantastic to see.”
It will also be interesting to see whether Mercedes can hold on to that advantage after the Young Driver Test, which may be extended another day to allow race drivers to participate provided they are working on the Pirelli tires.
The change was announced by the sport’s governing Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) shortly after the chequered flag flew in Sunday’s British Grand Prix where four drivers suffered spectacular rear tire failures. The FIA must get the approval of its World Motor Sport Council before the change becomes official.
In one frightening incident on Sunday, Alonso narrowly missed having a tire explode in his face as he lined up McLaren’s Sergio Pérez for a pass on the Hanger Straight. The Ferrari driver pulled out just as the Pirelli ripped apart and threw rubber shrapnel several metres into the air.
“That one with Sergio, I was so scared and so lucky because I missed the contact by one centimetre,” Alonso said later.
For now, Mercedes goes into its home grand prix at this Sunday’s German Nürburgring Circuit as one of the favourites to win.
And there’s no doubt that Rosberg, who was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, but grew up in Monaco, will be hoping to win his second home race.
“I already had one – fortunately for me, I have two home grands prix – I managed to win that in Monaco,” Rosberg said.
“I’m very proud to be German, driving a Silver Arrow, going to the Nürburgring. The history there, and having the great car that I have at the moment – really looking forward to that.
For more from Jeff Pappone, go to facebook.com/jeffpappone