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.

McLaren’s disqualification from the Australian Grand Prix for deliberately misleading the event’s stewards has left a sour taste in the mouth.  In a season where already – and very unusually – all the positives seem to be coming from the on track action as a spectacle as petty politicking rages all around it, it is still clearly an early nadir point which will hopefully not be challenged in the remaining 16 races.

For the driver, it’s another blow.  Lewis Hamilton is already as popular as a dose amongst his rivals.  Like Michael Schumacher, they complain about some his on-track exploits only for him to get away with his worst excesses.  And, like Schumacher, he compounds this frustration with also being a quite brilliant racing driver, a man of sufficient gifts that he need not ever attempt anything even approaching a bending of the rules or their spirit.  It is going to be hard work to regain his credibility with his fellows now.  As a sportsman, what he did is pretty much as low as it gets.

Hamilton claims he is not a liar.  On the whole, I believe him.  I’ve followed his career for 14 years and he has always exhibited a sportsmanlike integrity and a personal honesty.  However, I cannot believe that a man of his, very obvious, moral values was not at least partially complicit in his and his team’s baffling decision to mislead the stewards last Sunday.  The official line which is being taken here is that Hamilton was told to withhold certain pertinent details by Dave Ryan, McLaren’s (now at the very least suspended) sporting director.  The fact is, though, that Hamilton isn’t a rookie with it all to prove, he’s not clinging onto his drive, nor is he a stranger to the team.  His lengthy association with McLaren is now a thing of legend and its contribution his world championship triumph last year cannot be underestimated.  At the very least, Hamilton should have stood up to the team, refused their unreasonable, dastardly and unsporting request.  We will probably never know why he did not do this.  We will probably never fully rid ourselves of this little cloud hanging over the head of Lewis Hamilton the sportsman as a result.  A real shame.

Where Hamilton’s disgrace is all the more hurtful on account of its uncharacteristicness, the same cannot necessarily be said of his team.  In the past years, especially in the wake of the draconian penalties in the Ferrari espionage case, there has been a softening towards McLaren.  The great irony of this now is that this mainly has a sporting basis – they were the team most likely to be able to stop the domination of the Ferrari juggernaut set in motion by messrs. Brawn, Todt and Schumacher.  The decision this weekend has brought a lot of the old festering resentments back to the surface.  McLaren’s reputation, outwardly at least, has always been of a rather cold, mechanical outfit.  Since Ron Dennis’ Project 4 team took over at Woking in the early 1980s, the name McLaren has been a byword for ruthless efficiency and an endless, grinding pursuit of perfection.  When the victories dried up in the mid-1990s, people felt sorry for them.  A return to top line competition in 1997 and 1998, however, quickly reminded us of a rather uncomfortable truth: when wins are on the table, McLaren are the very sorest of losers, often lashing out like a bear with a sore head when things do not go their way.  Their punishment in 2007 was most probably reaping a decade of sown discontent – a muttered allegation here, an insinuation of unfair play there – which rubbed a lot of very powerful people, particularly Max Mosley, up the wrong way.  This was an unattractive streak, but it was also demonstrably a result of the outfit’s competitive urge.  Simply, it was being such bad losers which drove McLaren to be totally insuperable winners.

What is new here is the underhandedness,  something which has never been an issue with McLaren before now.  But it’s not just the duplicity which is so uncharacteristic, it’s also the stupidity.  Whoever is responsible for this piece of ugliness – be it a team decision, a group folly or a single rogue element – must have known that in the modern Formula 1, where everything from radio transmissions to the drivers toilet visits are scrupulously disclosed, they’d never possibly get away with it.  After 100 minutes of a race for which they’d qualified 18th in an uncompetitive car.  All this for just one extra point, when 4th place alone was practically a deliverance from the heavens.  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.

Crunching engines

October 29, 2008

The story of the world’s last great financial crisis and its effect on motor racing can more or less be summed up in two words: Harry Miller.  Miller is perhaps the single greatest figure in the history of American single seater car production.  Together with his chief mechanic and engine guru Fred Offenhauser, his factory’s cars completely dominated the single seater scene on the other side of the Atlantic from the 1920s until the 1960s.

During the roaring 20s, 83% of the field at the Indianapolis 500 was made up of Miller cars, with the marque taking victories in 1922, 1923, 1926, 1928 and 1929.  The thirties proved similarly fruitful, with further wins in 1933 and 1934.  In the period between 1928 and 1938, every single winning car was powered by either a Miller or an Offenhauser engine.  By this point, though, Harry Miller was a spent force, having succumbed to bankruptcy following the Stock Market crash of October 1929.  Without a sideline in road car production to bolster his factory’s income, Miller was particularly vulnerable.  The USAC, well-aware of the parlous situation which may be facing what was still a sport in its infancy, reacted in 1930, opening up the formula to tempt more manufacturers to compete at Indy.

This ‘Junk Formula’ was particularly distasteful to a man of Miller’s purity of thought in producing thoroughbred racing cars.  Much of the field was made up of various old Miller chassis, cobbled together with bits and bobs from elsewhere.  Harry Hartz won the race in a Summers chassis – based, again, on one of Miller’s – with a Miller engine.  The same sort of revulsion was felt in Europe two decades later, as Enzo Ferrari decried the Garagistes – people like John Cooper or Tony Vandervell, cobbling together racing cars from their own chassis and someone else’s engine and then having the nerve to beat the Manufacturer teams’ cars.  More of this in a minute.

Because, in the interim, the market crash of 1929 had very little discernable effect on the fortunes of Grand Prix racing.  Indeed, for 1930, the only change to the formula was to alter the fuel regulation, allowing more exotic blends, increasing speed and expense.  At the time, Grand Prix racing was very much dominated by the big European car manufacturers.  Throughout the 1930s, a pitched battle between the great Italian and German marques was fought around the continent.  Financial concerns were very much secondary.  The Fascist governments in Italy and Germany were using dominance in the world’s newest, most cutting-edge sport as a propaganda exercise as much as a sporting one and no expense was spared.

69 years on, the sport is similarly dominated by manufacturer-owned teams.  However, the sport is now a global one, and the only people dictating anything are the concerned and puffy-looking middle aged suits in board rooms.  Formula 1 will not, in other words, be spared penury this time round.

The teams have already begun reacting to this.  Indeed, cost-cutting measures have been on the agenda for them all since the beginning of the century.  In the late 1990s, fields of just 18 or 19 cars were common.  The Concorde Agreement, upon which Formula 1 is run, states that should fields fall below 16 entries, teams will be obligated to run 3 car teams.  This prospect makes team managers nervous, so the 21st Century has so far been a tightrope walk.  The big teams’ priorities now include keeping a good size field, and so they will occasionally make concessionary scraps available for the bottom feeders.  The FIA, too, are concerned with the ongoing health of the sport’s blue riband event.  To this end, next season’s regulations will continue the recent trend towards cost-cutting and energy saving, with three-race engines and kinetic energy recovery systems compulsory on all cars.

In the past week, though, things have started to get a bit less savoury.  The FIA already raised eyebrows by allowing those people left behind by the Engine Freeze bring their power plants back up to spec in time for 2009.  The most notable effect of this so far has been the resurgence of Renault.  However, such an egalitarian move is not particularly in keeping with the meritocratic principles of Grand Prix racing’s history.  It’s nothing, however, on the next suggestion – standardised engines.  So far, Toyota and Ferrari have both darkly muttered about a pull out of Grand Prix racing if this is made statute, and I can hardly blame them.  Standardisation as a means of cost cutting is nothing new, of course.  This season’s welcome return to the banning of traction control systems was made possible, for instance, by the introduction of an FIA-issued ECU box.  An engine, however, is a rather more fundamental part of a racing car.  As well as being the thing that makes the car move, it’s worth remembering that it is also a stressed member of the chassis.

This brings us back to the Garagistes.  These pesky people eventually sounded the death knell for the majority of the manufacturer teams, which were still utterly dominant in the early days of the Formula 1 World Championship in the 1950s.  By the end of that decade, though, only Ferrari were really still able to take the fight to the people at the front of the field.  Mike Hawthorn’s title for Ferrari in 1958 was the last for a manufacturer team until Niki Lauda’s in 1975.  His successor as the Ferrari team leader, Jody Scheckter,  won a 1979 triumph which was then the last until Michael Schumacher heralded the rebirth of the manufacturer team era in 2000.  Indeed, it’s now the constructor teams who have been in the doldrums – the last garagiste to take the crown was Mika Hakkinen in a McLaren-Mercedes in 1999, and even then it must be remembered that McLaren are the official Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix team in all but name.

The constructor-era was built on technological innovation at first.  Brilliant men and their brilliant breakthroughs were the order of the day.  John Cooper’s masterstroke was to put the engine in the back, whilst Lotus’ presiding genius Colin Chapman made huge strides in chassis and monocoque design.  However, the single biggest step forward was taken in 1967, with the introduction of the Ford Cosworth DFV engine.  A three-litre V8, available (after an initial season of exclusivity at Lotus) for just £7,500, the DFV engine was more powerful than any unit ever seen in the sport.  Its first win came in its first outing, at Zandvoort, Holland in 1967.  Its last – and 155th – was taken at Detroit 16 years later.  In the years in between, Formula 1 wasn’t so much manufacturer teams versus constructor teams as Ferrari versus the Cosworth teams.  The Cosworth era was finally seen off by the Turbo revolution started by Renault in 1977.  Even so, it was not until 1983 when Nelson Piquet, driving a BMW-powered turbo Brabham, broke the Ford monopoly.

Here’s the thing, though.  Ubiquitous it may have been, but the DFV was never obligatory.  The reason for its popularity was its cost-effectiveness and its competitiveness.  The fact, too, that the majority of the cars had the same engine made little visual impact, as the 1970s saw the most exciting selection of designs throughout the field ever seen on a Grand Prix grid.  The reason for this was freedom.  Freedom to experiment and introduce a ground-effect car like the Lotus 79.  Freedom to design a 6-wheeled car like the Tyrrell P34.  Both cars, incidentally, powered by the DFV engine.  Such freedoms are not something available to designers or teams in the current era, and combined with the financial pinch, it could wreak havoc on the sport.

The solution is simple.  Junk Formula.  Giving people freedom to try different things is the only way to entice people to keep viewing competing in Formula 1 as a viable proposition.  Give people freedom to miss a race if they can’t make it, without fining them to the point of inevitable extinction.  Certain things – which history has proven to be expensive or dangerous sidelines – should be specifically outlawed.  But aside from that, let people run a V6 engine, or a V10, or a V12 if they want.  Let them put a mad airbox on.   Forget trying to make all the car companies stay in F1.  They won’t.  Even in a positive economy this would be the case, because only one of them can win at any one time.  In a depressed economy, it is even more vital to make Formula 1 open for business rather than a closed shop.  Libertarianism, rather than socialism, will be the key to a healthy Formula 1 World Championship.