Date with destiny

April 29, 2009

This morning could have a significant effect on the destiny of the 2009 Formula 1 World Championship, as an increasingly competitive McLaren team face the World Motorsport Council on charges of  deliberately misleading the race stewards of the Australian Grand Prix.  Their guilt, of course, is already established.  The role of the WMC sitting today is to decide on what punishment, if any, this warrants.  McLaren International’s actions thus far – sacking team manager Dave Ryan, a series of public apologies including one from Lewis Hamilton plus a private letter sent to the FIA, chairman Ron Dennis standing down from his Formula 1 responsibilities and the team’s decision to stand silent at the hearing – all point, in my mind, to a team who has a nasty suspicion that it will not merely be a slap on the wrist.

The tendency of such hearings is for their outcomes to be representative of a team’s general conduct over a longer period than just for the incident alone.  With the cannily-named Spygate saga still fresh in people’s minds, this could have come at a better time for McLaren.  However, it must also be remembered that the team paid an astronomical fine for that transgression – $100 million – plus countless more millions in lost prize money for their disqualification from that year’s constructor’s championship.

Given all of this, plus the novel nature of the infringement, has left most commentators and experts very much in the dark as to what will happen this time.  The WMC has almost limitless powers for censure.  McLaren could escape with a warning, but just as easily could find themselves with a blanket ban from this year’s championship, or longer.

My own feeling has mellowed somewhat since my piece written on the 3rd of this month, with the subject still fresh in my mind.  I ended that article with the words: “The FIA say they reserve the right to punish the team further for this transgression.  I hope that they throw the bloody book at them.”  I maintain the view that the team deserved to be punished.  However, I now question the value of too swingeing a judgement.  McLaren’s actions were indefensible, but they have been caught and the wrong it caused – in terms of the results of the Australian race – has been righted.  They have also subsequently admitted their culpability and apologised – although I can’t help but feel that their scarcely-credible second denial of any wrongdoing to the Malaysian Grand Prix stewards a week later may well come back to haunt them.

Toto Roche’s Flag being a completely anal project, it would be remiss of me to not look back at previous similar incidences and their outcomes, before speculating on what McLaren’s fate might be and what I think it should be.

1984: Tyrrell

The accusation: Tyrrell Grand Prix were caught with traces of lead in their water tank after Martin Brundle’s car finished second in the Detroit Grand Prix.  It transpired that the team – hampered by the weight limit of the time, being the sole non-turbo engined car in the field – had been topping up their water tank late on in races with water filled with lead pellets to bring the car up to weight, having run the majority of the way under the limit.  The FIA charged the team with virtually everything it could throw at it.  The hydrocarbon traces in the water tank could be interpreted as the illegal use of an additional fuel cell, we were told.  No matter that the team – who as the sole remaining Cosworth outfit were a perpetual thorn in the side of the turbocharged remainder, in terms of Ken Tyrrell’s veto in Formula One Constructors’ Association meetings – scarcely needed their full fuel quota to finish the races with their frugal normally-aspirated engines.  Particularly as the team could also be charged with illegally running underweight, or using unsecured ballast.

The outcome: It was very much considered a fait accompli by many, an act of vengeance following pressure by the FOCA hoardes against a plucky outsider.  Nevertheless, the fact remained that Tyrrell had broken the rules.  Whether or not the punishment fitted the crime, however, is another matter.  Tyrrell, found guilty, were banned from competing in the balance of that season’s World Championship – three races – plus had all of the results they had gained up to that point in 1984 rescinded.

1994: Benetton and McLaren

The accusation: Benetton Ford and McLaren Peugeot were both accused of using banned electronic aids at that year’s  ill-fated San Marino Grand Prix.  Such gadgets, which had been banned at the end of 1993 with a promise of “mindblowing” sanctions for those caught using them in 1994, would have given any team a significant advantage as the rest of the teams got back to grips with passive suspension and no traction control.  Benetton and McLaren were specifically accused of using fully automated launch control devices at the start, but rumours darkly circulated about automatic gearboxes and traction control as well, particularly in light of Benetton’s stellar start to the 1994 season.

The outcome: Both Benetton and McLaren were acquitted due to insufficient evidence.  Both teams later received stern penalties for their drivers after trangressions in the races.  Both Michael Schumacher and Mika Häkkinen served race suspensions, with Schumacher sitting out both the Italian and Portuguese races for ignoring a black flag at the British Grand Prix.  This was interpreted by some as a disproportionate response, a way to punish them for both offences via the back door.

2005: BAR

The accusation: BAR Honda were caught using a supplementary fuel tank at the San Marino Grand Prix.  Once this tank was drained by scrutineers after the race, the car was found to be underweight.  The team were accused of illegally using fuel as ballast.

The outcome: BAR were found guilty of the charge.  Jenson Button was disqualified from his 3rd place at Imola, plus the team were suspended from the subsequent Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix.

Where, then, does this leave McLaren?  The BAR verdict in 2005 shows that the powers that be have no compunction in depleting a 20-car field to just 18 runners, if they think the crime warrants it.  Such sporting concerns as ‘the show’ are secondary, in other words, to sporting concerns such as probity of conduct.  Like Tyrrell in 1984, there is also no technological argument to be made, no potential loopholes to be explored, no questions of guilt or innocence.

In such circumstances, it’s hard to not see some sort of stiff penalty being handed down.  However, with the $100 million fine probably still not yet even entirely spent, McLaren’s conduct since should – and probably will – be some mitigation.  If it were my decision, I would ban the team for the next race, plus make them run for the next 2 years with a further suspended ban which made it clear that any further similar infraction would result in a total disqualification from that year’s World Championship.  What I suspect will happen is a two race ban and another substantial fine.  Let’s see.

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