Formula One team bosses are engaged in a bitter stand-off over the venue for 2017’s pre-season testing just months before the first session is due to begin.
Two tests of four days each are scheduled — the first between 27 February and 2 March and the second between 7 and 10 March — at pre-season favourite Barcelona, but a Mercedes-led push to move at least one of the two sessions to Bahrain is gaining traction.
Approximately half the teams have sided with Mercedes, which argues that the hotter weather will provide a more representative test for the tyres, but the remainder of the sport remains opposed on cost grounds.
A peculiarity in the regulation mean only a simple majority of teams are required to agree to changing the testing schedule rather than the standard unanimity required to change rules regarding next season.
Siding with the pro-change teams is Pirelli, which is concerned next year’s cars will boast more downforce than its current ‘mule car’ test vehicles — modified 2015 cars designed to generate more downforce — can muster, which could result in compounds unfit for purpose.
“The situation is that we have the biggest change in tyre regulations probably for one or two decades, and Pirelli have asked the FIA if they would support testing in Bahrain,” Mercedes executive director Paddy Lowe said.
“It’s a matter of supporting Pirelli’s request to contain the risk of arriving at the first race, being the first event with hot conditions, and there’s a real risk to the show.”
Lowe made a pointed reference to the 2005 United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, where Michelin-shod cars were forced to withdraw after the French tyres were found to be unfit for racing on the circuit’s banked turns.
“That’s not an inconsiderably risk and should be covered. That’s why we particularly support that request,” Lowe said.
Williams chief technical officer Pat Symonds, however, said he is ‘diametrically opposed’ to a change because a test in the Middle East would be an unnecessary cost burden on smaller teams.
“The cost of doing a test outside of Europe is vast,” he said. “Depending on exactly how you do it … we’re talking a minimum of £300,000.”
“A team like Mercedes, I’m sure they can put contingencies in their budgets to cover things like that. A team like Williams simply can’t. Therefore I think it is the wrong thing to do.”
There is suspicion inside the paddock that Mercedes in particular has an ulterior motive in making its request, the belief being that the soon-to-be triple constructors champion wants a warm-weather test to evaluate an aggressive cooling system rather than satisfy any tyre-related safety concerns.
“Paddy mentioned we need to have safety and the Indianapolis situation and things like that, but I think it’s very, very clear in the requirements that Pirelli have signed up to and indeed that Pirelli have asked for that we’re not running cars to test the safety of the tyres,” Symonds provided.
Holding one test each at Spain and Bahrain has been raised in a bid to find consensus, but Pirelli racing boss Mario Isola thinks such an outcome unlikely.
“What I understand is that if the decision is to go to Bahrain, they prefer to stay in the same place for all the tests,” he said. “To move all the logistics in four days is not impossible but it is quite complicated, so my understanding is that they want to stay in the same location for both the tests.”
Isola also confirmed murmurings had taken place about regulating a parallel tyre test to take place at Barcelona and Bahrain simultaneously.
“I heard this possibility, and what I’m told is that we’re ready to supply logistics for both tests,” he said. “But my feeling is that is not the solution they will choose.
“My feeling is that is not going to happen because of many reasons — some teams can feel this is not fair, so I don’t think it’s going to happen.”
Still attempting to poke holes in the plan, Symonds also pointed to Bahrain being a potentially problematic testing track based on previous tests, some of which were affected by sandstorms, which prevent any on-track running.
“We have tested there in the winter — some people remember — some years ago, and there was a test which was effectively sandstormed off rather than rained off.
“When we tested as recently as 2014 the first few hours of the day were spent just cleaning the circuit up.”
In an effort to find middle-ground Symonds suggested aligning the tests to lead into round one at the Australian Grand Prix to rationalise the cost of an additional extra-European trip.
“If you accept you’re going to stop on the way to Australia, it really doesn’t matter where you stop — I think Abu Dhabi would be a much better place, maybe even Malaysia — but as a team we’re opposed to the idea,” he concluded.”
Isola, however, believes there is good reason to consider Bahrain above any other location outside of Europe.
“Bahrain is a balanced circuit,” he explained. “Bahrain is quite good because it’s average, because of the weather conditions, and because of the fact you need some traction. This is important to understand if the rear tyres are working as expected.
“Abu Dhabi is a bit less severe — I don’t want to say less representative — but you can test the soft, supersoft, and the ultrasoft; the medium is already a bit too hard and the hard is out of the scale for Abu Dhabi.
“Malaysia is okay, it’s a god circuit, but it’s even more far compared to Bahrain.”
There is clearly little consensus amongst the teams about the idea of changing the already approved testing schedule, never mind what format a revised pre-season test might take, meaning debate will likely rage until Pirelli calls for a final decision at the final test of 2016, in Abu Dhabi on 29 November.