Atlas F1 That's Entertainment!

  by Roger Horton, England

Few could have guessed - as they watched the Ferrari pair of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher cross the line in victorious formation to win the Malaysian Grand Prix - that within a few short hours Formula One's world would be rocked by arguably the biggest controversy in its history.

Disqualified by the race Stewards following a report from the FIA's technical delegate Joachim Bauer, that the cars did not conform to article 3.12.1 of the 1999 Formula One Technical Regulations, a shocked and chastened Ferrari team immediately announced their intention to appeal. Just six days later in Paris, the FIA president Max Mosley told a packed news conference that their appeal was successful and that therefore the Ferrari team and their drivers would have their one-two finish in the Malaysian race restored. This verdict means that Eddie Irvine now leads the drivers' title race by four points and Ferrari the constructors' table by the same amount and ends Mika Hakkinen's brief reign as "provisional" champion.

In between these two events - as the story unfolded day by day and sometimes even hour by hour - was the sub-plot that runs through so much of the sometimes murky world of Formula One. Is this still a sport - rampant commercialism excepted, as is the case in all sports in the these dying days of the Millennium - or is it just now entertainment, 'whatever happens let's make the viewers happy'.

As the week wore on, the battle-lines could clearly be seen forming. Mosley firmly stating that he was a "rules are rules" man, whilst Formula One ringmaster Bernie Ecclestone - who had earlier on been widely quoted as stating that the disqualification was a "nonsense" - was clearly and unsurprisingly an entertainment man. "What happened in Malaysia is bad for the sport, I would like what the public want - to see a great finish in Japan," he added.

There is an old and enduring adage that it is not enough for justice to be done - it must be seen to be done. The suspicion - despite Ferrari's and the FIA's best efforts - that somehow a "back door deal" was made, to ensure that the public and Bernie Ecclestone get what they want - the title decided in a Japanese thriller - still lingers. Despite, it must be said, the weight of published evidence that seems to have proved that Ferrari were after all excluded unjustly from that vital race. If the FIA lacks credibility, as it clearly does, then it only has itself to blame. Its past decisions have clearly shown that when a choice between "the sport" or "the entertainment" is called for, the latter wins out every time.

Just two years ago the title-deciding race at Jerez, Spain, was marred when Michael Schumacher chose to deliberately ram the overtaking Williams of Jacques Villeneuve. Villeneuve survived to claim his title, but in the immediate aftermath of the race the Stewards decided that it was a racing accident and no further action was contemplated. Only the intervention of Max Mosley - who had earlier in the day at the driver's briefing warned that "draconian" penalties awaited any driver found guilty of unsporting driving - saw Schumacher compelled to appear before the World Council for their judgement.

Despite almost universal condemnation of Schumacher's actions, the FIA chose to merely slap his wrist deciding that: "Michael Schumacher's manoeuvre was an instinctive reaction and although deliberate not made with malice or premeditation. It was a serious error. The World Council decided to exclude Michael Schumacher from the results of the 1997 FIA Formula One World Championship for drivers. In lieu of any further penalty or fine, Michael Schumacher agreed to participate in the FIA European road safety campaign for a total of seven days in 1998."

Obviously the commercial reality of enforcing the only real penalty that would have meant anything - exclusion from some of the '98 season races - was too great for the "entertainment" lobby to stomach. So the same press that had a field day reporting the FIA's feeble sanctions two years ago again did not hold back in the build-up to the verdict - and its aftermath - this year either. Even the most casual observer of the past week's events can't help but to have formed an impression that here was an organisation (the FIA) that was clearly out of its depth - in both its ability to enforce its own regulations - and its vision to ensure that its own credibility survives.

If the FIA's handling of the high-profile Schumacher case was unimpressive, their record in other purely technical cases is little better. In the early part of the 1998 season the McLaren team enjoyed a huge performance advantage over all their rivals and totally dominated the opening race in Melbourne, Australia. The McLaren team's speed advantage was thought to be due in part to the development that became known as the "McLaren brake-steer system." McLaren had sought approval from the FIA's technical delegate at every stage of the system's development and consequently were very confident of the system's legality.

During the following race in Brazil, Ferrari (who alone amongst the front-running teams had no such system under development) protested against the teams that did - McLaren, Jordan and Williams. In the event, the Stewards chose to over-rule the FIA's own technical people and outlaw the system from the race - a decision that McLaren chose to accept rather than to appeal. That they would still go on and dominate the race, with a one-two finish, without the benefit of the banned system, was the ultimate justice in many observers' eyes. If the role of McLaren apparently "tipping off" the FIA's technical delegate during this latest dispute in Malaysia leaves a somewhat bad taste in the mouth, it needs to be seen in the context of the almost constant state of guerrilla warfare that exist between all the contenders in Formula One - and especially among Ferrari and McLaren.

If the FIA and the administration of Formula One were losers in the media war, so too were McLaren. The team's veteran boss Ron Dennis, who has been involved in the politics that continues around the clock in this sport we call Formula One, was "not disappointed and not really surprised" by the verdict. Even allowing for the expected charges of sour grapes he made a number of telling points when he stated, "Furthermore, a piece of [FIA] measurement that costs millions and has been used all over the world, has now come into question. The equipment that the FIA have used for several years have suddenly been brought into question. Well, it should be known that this equipment uses laser beams for measurement, which bodes well in measuring millimetres and is extremely accurate."

"We think the push now for our sport has inevitably become quite commercial," Dennis added, "But I think we paid the price for it. I am convinced [Ferrari's missing 10mm] was a mistake [and not cheating], but I think that it's slightly hypocritical to say there's no performance gain, because this is an aerodynamically critical piece of the car, and they even covered it. But even if there is no advantage - that is also irrelevant,because the regulation states that if it doesn't comply, then it doesn't matter if there is no advantage gained."

Perhaps more worrying for the longer-term future of Grand Prix racing was the reaction of McLaren's partner and part-owner Mercedes-Benz. Clearly bitter with the apparent complete about-turn achieved by Ferrari, they released a statement that cut to the core of the issue: "With great surprise, Mercedes-Benz Motorsport takes note of the FIA Court of Appeal's verdict. We are disappointed because this verdict has created a basis on which other precedents may occur and the credibility of the top category in motorsport can be doubted by critics.

"This carries a lot more weight than the fact that this verdict will allow a thrilling World Championship finale in Suzuka, in which two drivers still have the chance to clinch the title on their own accord. It will then have to be decided whether the top category in motorsport is organised on the basis of unambiguous rules and regulations which are accepted without reservations by all teams which enter cars in the Formula One World Championship."

Both McLaren and Mercedes were surprised that Ferrari changed their defence prior to the hearing. Initially none of the Ferrari senior personnel at the track challenged the FIA's findings. One would have perhaps thought that a technical director - confident of his cars' legality - would have stated from the outset that his cars were legal and looked forward to the appeal hearing to prove it. That they gave the initial impression that they were in fact "guilty by incompetence" laid Ferrari open to a week of endless criticism at home and ridicule around the world which the eventually acquittal has not perhaps totally erased.

The commitment that is required when a major world manufacturer puts its reputation on the line - as has Mercedes, and increasingly other motor manufacturers as well - can never be under-estimated. Whereas the kudos occurred when victories are scored and championships won is enormous, so too is the very public heart-ache in defeat. For the sober-suited men on the boards of multi national corporations, defeat on the race track might be just about bearable - they will have factored that risk into their calculations on the ledger of shall-we-or-shan't- we, when entry into the highly competitive world of Formula One was first mooted. But to lose because the playing field is not perceived to be level, or worse still, to be the victim of the governing bodies' incompetence, is another matter entirely. The FIA and the fans of "entertainment at all cost" will ignore this at their peril.

As the teams assemble in Japan for the seasons final race, the needle match between the McLaren and Ferrari teams will reach the fever pitch. The action - blow by blow - will be beamed to an audience of millions. Vindication of sorts will be claimed by one side or the other as the flag finally falls on this race and the season. Fittingly, perhaps, after all the speculation and venom of the last few days, one question will be answered on the track - as it should be: Just whether the Ferrari team - its cars fitted with the most scrutinised "barge boards" in history - can repeat their dominating Malaysian speed.

Lights... Camera.... Action! Let the entertainment begin!

Roger Horton© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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