Rocking the boat

There is not a great deal to laugh about in F1 at the moment - unless you don't like Michael Schumacher, Flavio Briatore and Tom Walkinshaw. You would think that their careers would now be on the crest of a wave - having dominated the World Championship this year - but it is not the reality. They are not popular and, whether they realize it or not, they are also in big trouble.

Why? Because the Benetton team has been implicated in a string of scandals which is doing untold damage to the sport.

To understand this one must realize that F1 is a hugely cynical world. But almost everyone involved has one thing in common: they love F1 racing, because it is fun and because it earns them money. Lots of money. If F1 is damaged then they get hit where pain hurts the most - in the wallet.

The ultimate crime in Grand Prix racing, therefore, is to rock the boat and damage the sport (i.e.: to threaten the income).

And we should not forget that F1 folk are a pretty vicious and greedy lot. Everyone says they are "a close friend" of everyone else, but it is the kind of friendship that exists between experienced beauty queens. You smile and wish your enemy luck and then sink the fingernails in as deeply as possible as soon as their backs are turned.

You will notice that the established names rarely damage the sport - making unpleasant changes (i.e.: threatening the income by forcing teams to face the unknown) has long been the job of the FIA. On the other hand Bernie Ecclestone can do no wrong because he is the paymaster. Bernie almost always gets what Bernie wants and no-one ever dares to say that he damages the sport. And thus the status quo is maintained. There are constant political battles between the teams - trying to outmaneuver one another - and the greatest scrutiny comes when a team is successful. The bigger the advantage, the closer the scrutiny. Winning in F1 is really not easy so when someone does it with an arrogant ease there are bound to be suspicions. In general the suspicions have little basis in reality, success being due to clever ideas, lots of money and hard work.

But that scrutiny means that top teams and drivers tend to get into more trouble than the small fry. What then happens is that one takes it on the chin and shuts up.

And this is where Benetton has gone wrong. Let us not get embroiled in each of the individual Benetton "problems", suffice to say that there were suspicions from the very start of the year that the team was up to something. The late Ayrton Senna watched Schumacher win at Tanaka International from beside the track - having been punted off at the first corner - and returned to the pits convinced that there was something not right. Senna died at Imola, but that same day the FIA impounded Benetton's black boxes. There followed a long delay before Benetton handed over the source codes to enable the FIA investigators to examine the software. The team was fined $100,000 for these delays.

At Silverstone there was controversy when Schumacher and the team ignored a black flag. This resulted in a two-race ban for the young German and a fine of $500,000 for the team. Soon afterwards, however, the FIA announced that it did not - at that point - have any evidence to suggest that Benetton had been using illegal electronic systems, but revealed that an illegal system did exist in the Benetton software and that it could be activated.

And then came the Hockenheim fire and the investigation revealed that a fuel filter had been removed. Benetton said this was not important and had been agreed by the FIA.

At the moment the evidence against the team is largely circumstantial - although the removal of a filter in the refuelling system is fairly blatant.

I do not profess to know whether Benetton is cheating or not, but I do know that the team insists on huffing and puffing, claiming its innocence, creating smokescreens and attacking the FIA for having the nerve to suggest that the great Benetton is out of order. All Benetton is doing is digging a deeper hole. It is, if you like, a problem of arrogant newcomers not understanding the system.

This public pouting and whingeing has perpetuated the scandals and now I believe whatever happens - even if the team is totally exonerated by the FIA - its achievements this year will always be questioned. And that is dreadfully sad because there are many people at Benetton who have worked night and day to achieve the success.

It is probably too late for Benetton to shut up. What is now needed is damage control. And the job of that goes - as usual - to the FIA. There must be no further delays in the investigations. Decisions must be made before Schumacher wins the World Championship because it would be absurd if he were to take the title and then be stripped of it later. The air must be cleared.

In recent weeks the FIA has shown itself willing to flex its muscles and act decisively - hanging out drivers to dry for relatively minor offences. Now it must do the same with Benetton. If Benetton is cheating then the team must be thrown out of the championship; if they are not cheating that should be shouted from the rooftops and then everyone can get back down to earning money again.

One would think that Briatore and Walkinshaw would have understood these fundamental truths. Both are businessmen. Briatore says he is in F1 to make money and admits he has no interest in racing. F1 is a way of selling pullovers.

F1 has seen people like them before. They come and they go. Only the real racers survive - men like Bernie Ecclestone, Frank Williams and Ron Dennis. They are in F1 for life. They cut the odd corner and ruffle the odd feather, but ultimately they know that if they cheat they are - in reality - cheating only themselves.

Everything they live for and everything they fight for is aimed at winning (i.e.: making loads of money). They get satisfaction by beating the others but there is a certain sense of honor among them as well. They are not easily pleased. They know there is no point in cheating if you know deep-down that your achievement was not worth anything?

If he cheats a sportsman must live with his dishonesty long after the spotlight has passed him by. And knowing one is a fraud must be an awful way to live. A tragedy in the true meaning of the word.

The other day the leading German weekly racing magazine arrived on my desk. You didn't need a dictionary to understand the headline: "Ist Michael Schumacher ein Schwindler?" it said.

I hope that is not a question that Michael will have to ask himself every day in the years to come...

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