MAURICE HAMILTON

A farce in 17 laps


Lousy weather and talk about tightening the F1 rules are appropriate on the eve of Silverstone. The history of the British Grand Prix is smattered with both but the 1998 race brought a controversial and comic combination of the two.

Basically, four hours after the finish, no one could be sure who had won this wet race, the officials eventually rescinding a ten-second penalty which they said Michael Schumacher should never have had even though he committed a serious offence the stewards knew all about. Ferrari had therefore won despite Schuey being in the pits at the time the chequered flag was shown to someone else.

Are you with me so far?

That should give you a suitable flavour of a confusing sequence of events that began when Schumacher lapped Alexander Wurz's Benetton under a yellow flag. This occurred 43 laps into the 60-lap race; a crucial moment in more ways than one.

Schuey's indiscretion earned him a 'stop-go' which, as things turned out, was also a suitable description for the actions of officials as they attempted to administer the penalty.

There are a couple of rules from 1998 you need to be aware of at this point: 1), if the incident occurred within 12 laps of the finish, the stewards could add a time penalty (in this case, 10 seconds) to the driver's racer time rather than call him in for a penalty. And 2), the stewards had 25 minutes in which to give written notification of the time penalty to a team official.

They screwed up on both counts by deciding to administer the time penalty when the incident was clearly outside the 12-lap mark - and then handing the erroneous notification (which was hand-written and illegible) to Ferrari six minutes too late. Oh, and as an aside, they forgot to display the decision on the timing monitors; another crucial cock-up that affected McLaren's strategy since their man, Mika Hakkinen, was second on the road to Schumacher.

So, here we are in the closing stages of the race and the world at large is oblivious to what's going on. Even Ferrari, in receipt of the only communication so far, are confused and decide to play safe by cleverly bringing their man into the pits for a stop-go at the end of his last lap rather than take the flag.

Actually, he does take the flag in a manner of speaking by going behind the official who appears to give it to Hakkinen. Having been at rest for 10 seconds, Schumacher then rejoins to complete his slowing down lap and pull into parc-fermé - where no one knows quite what to do with him because word has got out that a 10-second penalty will be added to his race time. Did someone say 'farce'?

We're not done yet. Realising they had got it wrong, the stewards rescinded the 10-second penalty. Schumacher had therefore beaten Hakkinen by 22.4 seconds. McLaren appealed on the reasonable basis that, had Schumacher served his penalty in the proper manner, the time taken to decelerate, travel the pit lane, stop for 10 seconds and accelerate back into the race would have cost about 25 seconds. Hakkinen wins. QED.

The stewards eventually rejected the protest and apparently cited the Safety Car being sent out one minute after the Schumacher-Wurz incident because of deteriorating weather conditions. Quite what that had to do with anything was anyone's guess including, you suspected, the harassed officials. Meanwhile, up in the media centre...

You've never seen anything like it. Animated grown men were rushing around with photocopied pages of the rule book and asking questions that became more confused and daft with each passing minute as their sports editors in London or wherever demanded to know who had won this bloody silly race because they wanted to put the motor sport report to bed and focus on the World Cup final that was about to kick off in Paris.

The FIA were fortunate that this sporting distraction was taking place in their home town. Had the football final not been going on, idle sports editors might have wanted to know more about how the governing body had made such a stupid mistake and then deftly removed themselves from the hook. And favoured Ferrari into the bargain.

The sports columnists might also have been amused to note that the failure to make the appropriate penalty announcement on the pit lane screens had been overseen by the Chief Steward - who happened to own a cinema in Bombay. You couldn't make it up.

Maurice Hamilton , a freelance motor sport writer and broadcaster since 1977, is the author of more than twenty books and contributes to websites and magazines worldwide.

His weekly column for Grandprix.com was Highly Commended in the 2011 Newspress New Media Awards.

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