ATLAS F1   Volume 6, Issue 42 Email to Friend   Printable Version

Atlas F1   Malaysia: One Year On

  by Roger Horton, England

Last year's Malaysian GP was one of the most controversial races in the history of F1. However, while much had been said about the implications of the Ferrari 'Barge-Board' disqualification and successful appeal, another aspect of that Grand Prix lingers on - that of Michael Schumacher's tactics on track in the supporting role for Ferrari. Roger Horton looks back on how that drive, then deemed incredible, has turned into illegal a year later

Last year's inaugural Malaysian Grand Prix was arguably one of the most controversial races in the history of modern Formula One.

Ferrari finished first and second, and their cars were then disqualified due to a technical infringement. Days later, their win was reinstated on appeal, amidst a storm of controversy. The 'barge board' issue grabbed all the headlines and most of the column inches in the press, almost totally overshadowing the tactical driving of Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher ahead of Hakkinen at Malaysia last yearSchumacher returned to the cockpit in Malaysia after recovering from his Silverstone injury, took pole position, led the race, let his teammate Eddie Irvine through for the win he needed, and then drove just slowly enough to hold up the chasing Mika Hakkinen, to ensure that the Finn would be no threat to Irvine.

Tactical driving at its best, perhaps; legal then, but outlawed now.

Going into the Japanese Grand Prix, McLaren's main hope of seeing Mika Hakkinen retain his world title was to somehow get David Coulthard ahead of Schumacher, and then have him control his pace, just as Schumacher had done so expertly the previous year in Malaysia.

Planning it is of course one thing, getting it done was quite another.

Then, at the drivers' briefing on the Friday before the race, came the news of the FIA's new edict: the drivers faced a three-race ban should they drive in a way that was judged to be 'unsporting'. When queried, race director Charlie Whiting reconfirmed that driving of the type that Michael Schumacher had indulged in at Malaysia last year, did indeed come under the 'unsporting' category, and should David Coulthard emulate him, then he would become liable to a penalty.

Understandably, perhaps, McLaren team boss Ron Dennis reacted angrily to the introduction of a new rule at such a critical time in the championship. "What we've been told is that, effectively, the race director will decide if a driver is driving in a manner that is not sporting. And if - at his sole discretion - he believes that to be the case, he will pull out a flag which must be obeyed and in the event that it is not obeyed, there will be a penalty. That is clearly in contradiction to the interpretations that have been put on racing teams's functioning as teams."

"Most of the problems we have now in F1 are ambiguity problems," Dennis added. "I don't think anybody wants this. The question is, what speed differential and what level of protecting one's position is going to deemed to be acceptable?"

Clearly the FIA was determined to act to protect the image of its World Championship, which would have been devalued if the main protagonists were seen to be disadvantaged by their rival's teammates in such an obvious way, and here perhaps Coulthard's previous actions at Indianapolis had hurt his team. Already out of contention for the race lead, after such an obvious jumped-start, his intentions left absolutely no room for any ambiguity as he 'crawled' around the Indianapolis circuit in front of Schumacher.

The FIA had clearly had enough of such tactics, and decided that there would be no repetition in Japan, hence the edict from Charlie Whiting.

As Dennis's comments clearly showed, the timing of the change was his main objection. It fuelled the paranoia, never far below the surface, that the governing body of the sport favours Ferrari over the British teams, a point FIA president Max Mosley recently admitted was a common allegation. "Ferrari understand the system, and those of the British teams that understand the system, know that we will be scrupulously fair, and sometimes we do things which are very annoying for Ferrari, and sometimes we do things that are very annoying for the English teams," Mosley said.

"I think that there are one or two people around who find it very difficult to see any picture clearly, particularly when it concerns Formula One, so the easy thing to say is that the FIA favours Ferrari. Unfortunately, it's a symptom of the sort of paranoia that I can't help."

Even so, the last-minute change in the rules, and one that so patently favoured Ferrari, certainly gave yet more ammunition to those that suggest that the governing body would like to see the Maranello-based cars finally triumph after so many years in the wilderness, despite Mosley's previous stout defence of the FIA's position.

Team orders have been part of Formula One since its inception. Now, according to the ruling from Suzuka, the FIA-appointed race director could decide just what is sporting behaviour and what is not, and there is no appeal. Once a driver has obeyed the black flag, his race is destroyed anyway, no matter what mitigating circumstances might later come to light.

Does a driver, perhaps battling some mechanical problem, no longer have the right to defend his position whilst he is on the track, should he be ahead of a championship contender? Will this new ruling stay in force at the start of the next season, when, technically, most of the field could claim to be championship contenders?

The whole question of making rules that attempt to control drivers' on-track actions is fraught with problems and has, over the last decade, generally been a case of shutting the door well after that particular horse has bolted. The FIA has, for example, already condoned earlier this year the practice of the pole man moving across the track to stoutly defend his position, which now is practically normal in every racing F1 start.

Just what would have happened at Suzuka, for example, if Mika Hakkinen had simply held his line and driven straight ahead at the start? Almost certainly his car would have made contact with Schumacher's Ferrari, and how could the FIA then have done anything else but to have penalised the German champion, because he would have been guilty, surely, of driving into another competitor?

Who knows except the FIA, would seem to be the answer to that question. And perhaps that was the point of their new rule, after all.

Roger Horton© 2000 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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