Atlas F1 Scrutinise the Scrutiny

  by Alexander Law, Australia

Three hours after the inaugural Malaysian Formula One Grand Prix, Ferrari's worst nightmare became a devastating reality. Both Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine's race cars failed a single technical test, were deemed illegal, and disqualified. Thus, provisionally McLaren and Mika Hakkinen had won the 1999 Formula One Constructors' and Drivers' championships. However, the steward's judgement was overturned in the FIA Appeal's Court last Friday.

What the two Ferrari cars failed was Article 3.12.1 of the 1999 FIA Formula One regulations, which states that, "All sprung parts of the car situated more than 33cm behind the front wheel centre line and more than 33cm forward of the rear wheel centre line, and which are visible from underneath, must form surfaces which lie on one of two parallel planes, the reference plane or the step plane."

At post-race scrutineering, the two Ferrari race cars failed this rule when the deflector plates, or also known as "barge boards" were checked. The above rule means that the barge boards from the top of the board to the bottom of the board must maintain a uniform vertical plane when a measure is run across the length of the board, and when viewed from underneath, this should show this

Unusually, Ferrari quickly admitted to the grievous error, but also stated that neither cars gained any advantage from the illegitimacy of deflectors. Doubt could be thrown over this as Schumacher's performance over the nearest rival car was a good second faster in qualifying, and his performance in the early stages of the race would lend argument to the detractors. However, Ferrari's statement that the car inherently had not changed since the European Grand Prix three weeks before, and the fact that McLaren struggled so badly in the earlier sessions at the new Kuala Lumpur track, suggest otherwise.

McLaren, for its part, was beaten by team tactics and poor stratagem, legal or otherwise. All through the year, the MP4-14 has set the benchmark for overall grip. The difference at Malaysia was how the game was played. Ferrari played the team card aggressively with the best driver in the world and demoralised an already insecure Mika Hakkinen. Since Belgium, Hakkinen has only scored 8 points, and his frustration was clearly shown at Monza, where he threw another 10 points away.

Irvine, for his part, has kept his cool through the poor performances at Belgium and Monza, to the missing tyre bungle at the Nurburgring. Unlike Hakkinen, he doesn't have the best car at his disposal, and Ferrari signed him as the Number Two driver to Michael Schumacher! Sepang played its part as well, as there is no previous record for teams to go by. While most teams used their set-ups from the Nurburgring, mechanical grip became more of a premium as the aerodynamics were sorted. The results were similar to a wet weather race. Thus, Schumacher trounced the nearest opposition by a whole second and was able to hold Hakkinen off while Irvine romped to victory.

But that's another story.

How Ferrari ended up in this mess is laughable as much as it is regrettable. How could such a large multinational team, with many experienced members, make such a mistake? Ferrari, in its press release, questioned the legality of the manufacturer of the suspect part and pointed out that it could have originated from there. If that is so, then why didn't the team ensure that the parts that had not been built in-house were scrutinised before their addition? Ferrari's technical director Ross Brawn pointed out that the cars had not changed in configuration since the Nurburgring. But that doesn't mean that parts of the car haven't been changed. Schumacher had an accident at Mugello, and for certain that both cars would have been dismantled and repacked for the flight from Maranello to Kuala Lumpur.

However, Brawn pointed out that the FIA had approved the design change for the European Grand Prix three weeks prior. All the cars would have been scrutinised time and again by both the team AND the FIA technical committee before, during, and after a race weekend. There would have been one especially AFTER qualifying, and most likely before the race. If the car had not been changed, then why wasn't this problem detected firstly, three weeks before at the Nurburgring, or at pre-race scrutineering before the first practice session at Sepang? For sure it did not have a beneficial effect at the Nurburgring. In Malaysia, only Schumacher had the unbelievable advantage of a whole second during qualifying. Irvine was only just ahead of the two McLarens, and in the race, it was down to Schumacher's driving savvy that kept Hakkinen behind; Coulthard could have threatened Irvine if it were not for his mechanical failure.

At the FIA Appeals hearing on Friday, Ferrari brought in massive amounts of data regarding the overall performance benefits from having such a part. The results would have been negligible, as many other team technical directors have agreed. Ferrari also showed that the parts were legal within a 5-millimetre tolerance limit set in the regulations by the FIA (part of Article 3.12.6 of the 1999 FIA F1 regulations). However, the problem was the legality of the methodology of measurement applied by the FIA stewards at the Sepang circuit, and the accuracy of the equipment.

There has been a precedent to this incident. After the 1995 Brazilian Grand Prix, the two cars of Michael Schumacher (then at Benetton) and David Coulthard (then at Williams) were disqualified when fuel samples from then team supplier Elf did not match an earlier sample given by the petrochemical giant. However, in a subsequent appeal, both drivers had their points reinstated but the two constructors were punished. This ruling caused a major uproar in various Formula One circles, most notably Ferrari, as Gerhard Berger would have won the Brazilian race if it were not for Schumacher and Coulthard's reinstatement. Niki Lauda (who was working for Ferrari at the time) was the most vocal at the time, stating that neither driver nor car could be separated from being punished or exonerated.

The success of the appeal in 1995 hinged on two points: the performance gain (or lack of) from a part that was found to be illegal, and the accuracy of the measurement equipment. In 1995, the appeal was partially won on the latter point, when the two measurements were made on different equipment. In 1999, the accuracy of the equipment has been brought into question again. The former point also added to the appeal victory. In both cases the equipment measuring it was brought into question, and proof that there was no performance gain was shown.

However, the judgement results, while both causing major controversies, were very different in their overall effect. In 1999 the result of this hearing has had a major effect over the entire championship. Instead of McLaren and Mika Hakkinen winning another double crown, it all goes to the final round at Suzuka. In 1995 the result was moot. Schumacher and Benetton won the championship by a margin where 10 points would not have made a difference. It would have meant Benetton wrapped up its 1995 Constructors' Championship victory much earlier, but the result was moot. This time, the effects are far-reaching, so much so that the fallout of this may continue well into the New Year.

What can the FIA learn from this? Measurement equipment must be accurate to the last millimetre. This equipment is from what all cars are built, and the construction of these "universal measures" must be scrutineered to the maximum.. Also, this equipment cannot be changed during the year, and measurements of items where more than one measurement is taken, the measurement must be taken with the same equipment. In all Science experiments, from high schools to the most complex physics problems, this is the norm or else the results cannot be accurate. This escaped the FIA's scrutiny in 1995 and probably again in 1999.

The FIA must also change the current methodology of how the race directors and stewards can deal out punishments. As the race directors and stewards are changed from race to race, this has a problem where the severity or leniency is dependent on the person presiding. One person, like the FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting, must be the FIA Chief Steward and another for Race Director. Like the CART's now retiring Race Director Wally Dallenbach, a person in such a position holds the responsibility of all decisions in the race. Previous indecisiveness on the stewards' part resulted last year in the controversial victory of Michael Schumacher at Silverstone where he served a stop-go penalty AFTER he had won the race. While this problem has been amended in the FIA rules, other problems will arise where a change in the regulations will not be effective. Similarly, the same person at every race meeting must supervise the scrutineering of the cars. Who knew of Jo Bauer until he decided to call back the Ferrari drivers and have their cars disqualified?

The victory, disqualification, and reinstatement of Ferrari from the Malaysian Grand Prix has produced a week of Formula One news that even Bernie Ecclestone could not have paid for. It has re-ignited the public interest in the international sport. However, the entire affair has exposed the weaknesses of a judiciary system that while very strong in conception, is weakened with the decentralisation of responsibility. A much stronger, more centralised government of rules before, during and after race weekends is needed to ensure that constructors and the regulatory committee do not make such mistakes again. The result of this week of posturing may have resulted in a lot of publicity for Formula One, but the general public must question the usefulness of such "bad" publicity not for Formula One, but motorsport in general.

Alexander Law© 1999 Kaizar.Com, Incorporated.
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