Monday, February 18, 2008

Equality before the law?

It was a throwaway remark from Christine in a recent edition of sidepodcast which got me started. While talking about the livery of the newly rebadged Force India team, she suggests that they had perhaps had to drop the original (and much prettier) red colour scheme after pressure from Ferrari - who wanted to ensure that they remained the only red car on the grid. And now I think about it, it's been a very long time since anyone other than Ferrari had a red car on the F1 grid. I might be forgetting someone, but I think the last car other than a Ferrari to be decked out in red was the 1992 Scuderia Italia Dallara. And the only other one I can remember from the 25 years or so that I have been following the sport was the 1990 Life W12. Which was in no danger of being confused with a Ferrari, or indeed with a working F1 car.

Now, to be honest, I'm being a little facetious. I don't really believe that Ferrari have some kind of exclusive right to the colour red. Nonetheless, there is a widespread belief that the powers that be in F1 have tended to look after the interests of the Maranello team. In the wake of the Renault mass-damper affair back in 2006, after all, the FIA were being referred to in some quarters as Ferrari International Assistance. It is a matter of public record that the team benefit from their reputation and supposed 'star power' in terms of the sport's financial arrangements - they get more TV money simply for being Ferrari. The allegations, though, go deeper than that. It is suggested that Ferrari get favourable treatment not just from the sport's promoters, but from the supposedly neutral governing body.

As a matter of fact, allegations of favouritism towards Ferrari have a much longer history than that. They go back to a time before the FIA even existed, when Ferrari's name had little of the cachet that it does today. At the end of 1960, the governing body of the sport replaced the 2.5l formula which had been in use for some years with a new small-capacity 1.5l formula for the following season. With research and development budgets much smaller in those days, few teams had time to react to the sudden change in rules, and so most teams were forced to fall back on the Coventry Climax 1.5l 4 cylinder engine, which had begun life as a fire-pump unit.

The result was that Ferrari, who were pretty much alone in being truly prepared for the change of rules, dominated the season with their iconic Sharknose 156 design. There remain suggestions, to this day, that the governing body deliberately introduced the rule change when they did in order to give Ferrari a helping hand. Phil Hill won the championship that year, after the death of lead driver Wolfgang Von Trips in the Italian Grand Prix. In the event, though, Ferrari would win the title only once more in the following fifteen years.

It would not be until the early 1980s that talk of governing body bias towards Ferrari resurfaced though. This time, it was not so much specific bias in favour of Ferrari that was the accusation, but rather that the FISA was systemically tilted towards the works 'grandee' teams of Ferrari, Alfa Romeo and Renault, and against the mainly English 'garagistes', Lotus, Williams, Mclaren, Brabham et al. The garagistes tended to build the best chassis, and in particular, had perfected the art of building 'ground effect' cars with 'skirts' which created a vacuum under the body of the car, sucking them to the ground and generating immense downforce. The grandees, by contrast, tended to be behind the curve when it came to ground effect, but had a near monopoly on the manufacture of turbo engines. The turbos were clearly better than the normally aspirated Cosworths that the garagistes were using, but they were rarely bolted to the best chassis.

In 1983, the FISA announced that they were banning 'skirts' in the name of safety. Many among the garagistes saw this as a blatant attempt to favour the interests of the continental manufacturer grandee teams. After all, by Ken Duckworth's logic, turbos had never been legal in the first place, and yet it was ground effect where the FISA decided to take action. A more balanced analysis, however, would concede that there was a much greater need to do something about ground effect than there was to ban turbocharging. Towards the end of the 'skirts' era, the cars had so little feel, and so little suspension travel, that the driver had almost no feel for what the car was doing. A driver entered a corner relying on blind faith that the car would stick, knowing full well that he would have little or no warning if it did not. By contrast, turbocharging was an interesting and potentially fruitful new technology with possible road-car applications, and an interesting new avenue for the sport to explore.

If the rule change was intended to change the balance of power in favour of the grandee teams, and in particular Ferrari, then it did not work. In the final year of ground effect, Ferrari finally got it more or less right, and had it not been for the tragic death of Gilles Villeneuve, and career ending injury of his team mate Didier Pironi, one or other of them would almost certainly have been crowned champion. As it was, Keke Rosberg snuck through to win the title in spite of winning only one race for Williams. Come 1983, Brabham's partnership with turbo engine maker BMW married the best of both worlds - the chassis know-how of the British 'kit car' builders and the turbo engine building of the car manufacturers. Nelson Piquet claimed his second world title. For the rest of the turbo era, the titles would be won by British teams using car manufacturers' turbo engines (Mclaren with Porsche, Williams with Honda, and then finally Mclaren with Honda).

The end of the turbo era saw Ferrari engaging in an intriguing piece of brinkmanship with the FISA. In the late eighties, the Scuderia built an Indycar. The car never raced, and the question has often been asked: What were their motives? According to Mark Jones' piece for AtlasF1, the answer is that the car was being used to bully the governing body into allowing V12 engines in the post-turbo epoch. It should be remembered that, by the late eighties, Ferrari's mystique was considerable, and had the team opted to desert F1 for Indycars, it is all too possible that the Grand Prix racing's prestige and credibility would have been damaged. If it is true, then it worked, for Ferrari did indeed turn up for the first post-turbo race at Brazil in 1989 with a V12-engined car. They won that race, too, although in the long run, the V10 configuration turned out to be the optimal solution and over the course of the 1989 season, the Mclarens of Senna and Prost remained dominant.

Through the first half of the 1990s, Ferrari fell into such an abyss that any question of favouritism from the FIA, now under the control of Max Mosley, was irrelevant. They would have had to have been allowed to run 4 litre engines to stand a chance of offering a serious threat to Mclaren, Williams and Benetton. The picture began to change with the arrival of former Peugeot rally boss and one time rally co-driver, Jean Todt at the Scuderia.

It was Todt who hired Michael Schumacher, and with him Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. Undoubtedly. these three men, when put together with the organisational nous of Todt and Luca Di Montezemelo, were the driving force behind the Ferrari dream team of the early years of the 21st Century. Most of the significant allegations of FIA favouritism towards Ferrari, though, also date from this era.

It began, I suppose, at the end of the 1997 season in Jerez. Then, if you recall, Michael Schumacher made a particularly blatant attempt to win the world title for Ferrari by driving Jacques Villeneuve off the road. The attempt failed, and Schumacher's only, and purely symbolic punishment, was the loss of his 1997 drivers points. As he hadn't won the title anyway, one rather doubts that he lost sleep over this. It has sometimes been said that, had Schumacher been driving for any other team, the punishment would have been rather more harsh. I'm not entirely convinced. After all, it was not the first time a driver attempted to win the title by driving his rival off the road. When Ayrton Senna did it in 1990, he got the title, too. Come to that, there are those who say that it was actually Alain Prost who started it all by deliberately running Senna off the road the year before (though this is far from clear cut, as unlike Senna, Prost never admitted to doing any such thing, and should perhaps be given the benefit of the doubt. Neither driver was penalised. In fact, neither was Schumacher after his controversial first title win in 1994, following a collision with Damon Hill in the final round at Adelaide. On balance, the failure to impose a harsher punishment on Schumacher probably reflects more on the governing body's reluctance to dole out severe penalties to the sport's biggest box office draws than to any bias towards Ferrari in particular.

A couple of years later came the Malaysian barge boards fiasco. For those who can't remember, Eddie Irvine was in the running to win the world title for Ferrari after Schumacher had lost much of the summer to injury. Irvine, aided by Schumacher, won the Malaysian Grand Prix, but both Ferraris were later disqualified when their barge boards were found to be outside the regulations. This seemed to hand the title to Mika Hakkinen and Mclaren. However, for reasons that were never made entirely clear, the Ferraris were later reinstated and the title fight went on to the final round at Suzuka (Irvine ultimately lost). Was this a sign of FIA bias towards Ferrari? Or a desire to create an artificial final round title showdown? Or simply the inevitable result of botched post-race scrutineering in Malaysia? Again, the answer is frustratingly unclear.

As the 2000s have rolled on, there have been persistent mutterings that Ferrari have some kind of 'inside line' on regulation changes. It has been suggested that, at the very least, the Scuderia are getting early warning of regulation changes, and that at worst, they are actually getting considerable control over what the changes are. The switch to Bridgestone control tyres (despite the fact that all the major teams other than Ferrari used Michelins) has been cited as one example, and the abandoning of the single-tyre rule which had badly hurt Ferrari in 2005 was another. However, there is another way to look at these. Michelin, it could be argued, had badly let the sport down when it failed to turn up with tyres capable of holding together on the banking at Indianapolis in 2005, leading to the farcical race of six cars that year. The FIA perhaps weighed that in mind when deciding who should get the tyre contract for 2007. Likewise, the strongest argument against the single tyre rule was that it was inherently dangerous - as Kimi Raikkonen's accident at the end of the European Grand Prix in 2005 neatly demonstrated. That Ferrari happened to benefit from these decisions does not necessarily mean they were made with the welfare of Maranello in mind.

Perhaps the strongest circumstantial evidence of pro-Ferrari bias at the FIA has been the mid-season decisions which have hurt and destabilised their major rivals in the course of tense championship battles in 2003, 2006 and 2007. In 2003, there was the ban, just prior to Monza, of Michelin's tyres, on the grounds that they deformed too much under heavy g-force loadings. A necessarily vague rule, the sudden requirement that the French team redesign their rubber certainly seemed to take the fire out of title charges from both Juan Montoya at Williams and Kimi Raikkonen at Mclaren. But then who is to say that the rubber wasn't simply illegal? If Ferrari were sharp enough to notice, that's to their credit...

The banning of Renault's 'mass damper' system in 2006, while Fernando Alonso was locked in combat with Michael Schumacher for the world title seemed to be equally suspiciously timed, especially as the system had previously been declared legal by the FIA. Fernando Alonso's bizarre grid penalty at Monza must be grist to the mill, too. That, however, would be to ignore the penalties handed out to Schumacher at Monaco (justifiably) and at Hungary (rather less so).

Last year, of course, we had the spygate affair. One can argue until that cows come home about whether what Mclaren was doing was significantly different from the kind of clandestine information exchange which has gone on since the dawn of the sport's history, but there is little doubt that the team were caught. If Ron Dennis didn't know about it, so be it, but there is no doubting that Mike Coughlan, who was a senior Mclaren man, certainly did. And again, if there was, as Martin Brundle suggested in the Sunday Times, a witch-hunt against Mclaren, does that reflect pro-Ferrari bias, or simply anti-Mclaren sentiment (though that would of course be significant in itself). The $100m fine may have little grounding in reality, and certainly seems at odds with the absence of any punishment at all in Renault's superficially similar case, but in this case, no action was taken which damaged Mclaren's title chances. It was bad luck and errors from the team and Lewis Hamilton which gifted the 2007 driver's title to Raikkonen and Ferrari.

So what's the conclusion? Maddeningly, perhaps, the only one I can come to is that, if this were a court of law, the case would have to be dismissed owing to insufficient evidence. There's no doubt that Ferrari have benefited from certain decisions of the FIA in recent years, and equally there is little doubt that they have been aggressive in lobbying the governing body when their interests are at stake, but on the question of whether the FIA are in some way in their pocket? I work in the Scottish legal system, and in Scots law, we have not two, but three verdicts: Guilty, Not Guilty and the so called 'bastard verdict' - 'Not Proven. And that is the verdict I am forced to come to in this case.

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Anonymous Don Speekingleesh said...

The worst part of the mass damper ban wasn't the timing - it was the utter nonsense reasoning that didn't stand up a quick reading of the rules.
(And Schumacher's penalty was very justified in Hungary - it was a black and white rule, and he clearly broke it for no excusable reason.)

I think the volume of questionable decisions that seem to benefit Ferrari really does lead one to believe that there have been times where there wasn't a level playing field.

3:39 PM  
Anonymous Clive said...

An admirably fair and clear look at the subject, Patrick. The problem is that both Bernie and Max have admitted that the FIA leans towards Ferrari in its decisions. Bernie admitted it in an interview with Bild, and Max has explained how Ferrari was so important to the sport that the bias was necessary.

It's kinda hard to argue with a guilty plea. ;)

9:02 AM  

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