Ferrari finished the Spanish GP further behind Mercedes than it had all season. Did the Italian squad updates not work as expected, or was it hindered by the fuel-flow rule clarification released ahead of the weekend? Jonathan Noble investigates.
Formula 1 loves a good conspiracy theory, and the Spanish Grand Prix rule clarification over fuel systems got tongues wagging about it being part of a behind-the-scenes technical battle between Mercedes and Ferrari.
Ferrari's struggles in the race – where it finished further adrift than it had in any other grand prix this season – pointed to some big factor having hampered the team.
And rather than the explanation being that their new update package had not worked, could it be that the FIA rule clarification to demand constant fuel pressure had hindered a clever way that Maranello's boffins had been boosting their speed?
We will know more over the next races, but the clear struggles Ferrari had in sector three of Barcelona – losing 0.462 seconds to Mercedes there compared to 0.160 seconds in the first sector and 0.207 seconds in the second – certainly suggested that their deficit was mechanical or traction rather than aerodynamic.
If a team had been cleverly collecting fuel beyond the fuel-flow meter and then throwing it into the engine above the maximum 100kg/h rate when most needed, its biggest benefit would be had in sector three of Barcelona.
There is lots of acceleration and a blast on to the main straight where any boost to get up to top speed quickly would be desirable.
Losing it would cost valuable laptime.
Mercedes called up in Q1
The intrigue surrounding the situation goes deeper though, because it has emerged that Mercedes was called up over fuel pressure fluctuations in Q1 at Barcelona.
Motorsport.com understands that unusual spikes in pressure alerted the FIA to speak to the team – and Mercedes had to make some minor changes to its engine settings to ensure it fell within line with what the governing body wanted.
It has been suggested that it was that Mercedes incident, allied to its explanation about what other teams could be doing, that prompted the FIA to issue its technical directive immediately after qualifying.
Take the sequence of events a step further, and one theory doing the rounds was that Mercedes deliberately engineered the fuel pressure variation to bring the matter to a head on a weekend when its main rival had introduced a massive car upgrade.
Closing off the opposition
It is not uncommon in F1 for teams to suggest to the FIA potential design ideas that they know will not get approved, so that similar concepts on rival cars are outlawed.
But while ensuring a ruling on fuel-flow pressure may have been desirable for Mercedes in closing off something Ferrari may or may not have been doing, is it feasible for a team to engineer such variation deliberately and risk falling foul of the FIA in a qualifying session?
Unlikely, but stranger things have happened in F1, and Mercedes' silence on the fuel matter has only served to further boost the conspiracy ideas.
Ultimately, the battle in F1 is as competitive off track as it is on it, and conspiracy theories and diversionary tactics in the paddock are often useful in clouding the picture for rivals and frustrating their efforts.
The value of a conspiracy
Back in 1994, rumours swirled around Benetton that it was somehow using laser technology to detect the electrical current of the red start lights.
The idea was that when the lights started to change, the car would be launched even before the driver had had time to react.
One senior team member told me that the accusations were incorrect. But, the outfit deliberately kept fuelling the conspiracy so its rivals wasted time trying to work out what they were up to.
While the opposition were focused on a concept that did not exist, it meant that they were not knuckling down to the benefits of tyre use, weight distribution and engine mapping that were far more important.
Sometimes teams like untruths to run because there can be hidden benefits. The talk of a conspiracy to get the rules changed does no harm to Mercedes as it serves to highlight an area where a rival could be gaining advantage.
The flipside is, of course, that if Mercedes had not deliberately created the situation in Q1, then it was simply very, very lucky it happened.
And on such tiny moments of good fortune, races and titles can be won or lost.