F1: McLaren verdict is due from FIA

By LJ Hutchins

CalendarWednesday, April 29th, 2009

 
 

Today the McLaren F1 team is due to go to Paris and face the consequences of its actions following the Australian Grand Prix held in Melbourne this year.

Then, confusion over the rules about overtaking Toyota’s Jarno Trulli under the safety car after he had gone off track was somehow brokered into a major scandal that called the entire team’s integrity into question – and all for the sake of a single world championship point. Yes, last year’s championship swung on one point, but even so.

The affair centres on the fact that driver Lewis Hamilton and team lynchpin Dave Ryan (since dismissed) were unwilling to give a straight answer to the question of whether Hamilton had been told to re-pass Trulli – an answer that was, unfortunately for them, readily available from the radio transmissions.

As a result of that moment of confusion, in the intense final laps of a grand prix with a podium at stake, and of a perhaps understandable feeling that nothing ever goes well for McLaren in the stewards’ room, the reigning world champion says he came close to retiring from Formula One.

The loss of decades of racing expertise in the form of Dave Ryan is a blow that will be felt to the end of the season and beyond.

Former team principal and company chairman Ron Dennis announced he would cut all his ties with F1 in order to concentrate on getting a new McLaren road car into production.

Though widely viewed as an attempt to fall on his sword and placate the FIA, we noticed a piece of information pointed out by BBC commentator Jonathan Legard that we found completely convincing.

Ron’s departure was timed three months to the day from his announcement that he would hand over to Martin Whitmarsh, a decision taken long before the Melbourne incident blew up.

That sounds to us like an archetypal Dennis action – sticking to his existing plan through thick and thin – but that is certainly not the perception that most people have of events.

And Anthony Hamilton, father and manager to Lewis, has come in for a heap of unpleasant and we believe unjustified abuse for being some Machiavellian figure that holds such power in the team that he is able to tell the chairman when to step down. Unlikely, we feel.

Once again we are seeing a season where the outcome of the racing is decided in the stewards’ room rather than on the track – and every race seems to throw up a questionable penalty for someone.

And a lack of clarity over the rules, combined with a quite justifiable feeling that F1 does not always operate on a level playing field, has led a team that really should have known better to self-destruct in a spectacular fashion and ruin its hopes of defending Lewis’ title.

Today we are due to see the outcome of this stupid mess when the World Motor Sport Council meets in Paris to decide the team’s punishment. McLaren has admitted everything, apologised and said it will not defend itself against the charges in a bid to deflect the coming storm.

Having handed down a £50 million fine (and two years’ probation, significantly) at its last encounter with McLaren, it was initially hard to see what the WMSC might have left on the punishment shelf, a line of thinking that has reportedly led high-profile sponsors and partners including Mercedes to threaten to withdraw if the sanction is too heavy-handed.

There are clearly a number of scenarios available for today that could see the team forced out of the 2009 season or maybe even the sport altogether.

However there has been a glimmer of hope in the form of a statement from WMSC member Bernie Ecclestone – yes, this is how ethically Formula One is constituted, when someone with a huge financial stake also acts as a regulator – saying that he believes any punishment will be fair.

Given the size of the fuss that has blown up over that five or six seconds of on-track confusion, a fuss that has undoubtedly spread beyond fans and even casual viewers to people who barely know who Lewis Hamilton is, the WMSC needs to show that it takes teams’ abuses of the rules seriously.

But it needs to do that in a way that doesn’t leave one of F1’s top teams crippled or even fatally wounded, and in a way that doesn’t deliver a further blow to the sport’s credibility.

That’s quite a balancing act. We’ll see whether they pull it off later today.

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