FIA shoots itself in the foot

The FIA has changed much in the last few years, but it still has the capacity to make well-intentioned decisions which leave the organization looking, to the general public at least, utterly inept.

Last week in Paris, France, the FIA International Court of Appeal overturned the exclusions of Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard from the Brazilian Grand Prix - while at the same time accepting that the cars had been running with illegal fuel in their tanks. Despite the fact that the rules had quite clearly been broken, the appeal court said that the FIA stewards in Brazil had been "confused" when they made their decision. This cannot do any good for the morale of the body of international race stewards.

The decision taken by the stewards in Brazil was appealed by the Benetton and Williams teams on the grounds that the fuel was correct, and there were many suggestions that the efficiency of the FIA's testing equipment was questionable.

In the days after the Brazilian GP, it gradually became clear that the FIA tests had been correct and that Elf had made a mistake and sent the incorrect fuel for pre-season analysis. Last Wednesday evening - the day before the appeal was to heard - Benetton and Williams issued a joint statement which appeared to herald a humiliating defeat. They said that they "have never doubted that the FIA acted totally in the best interests of the sport even though the infringement was of a minimal nature" and accepted that the fuel analysis procedures and equipment used by the FIA had been correct.

On Thursday morning the four International Court of Appeal judges spent 12 hours listening to all the arguments in the dispute before coming up with their controversial ruling. They accepted that the two drivers had used fuel which was different from that agreed by the FIA and was, therefore, illegal. They refused to rule on whether this fuel had given the drivers any advantage, as fuel experts present could not agree. They did, however, decide that the drivers could not be held responsible for the fuel irregularities and thus declared that the exclusion of the drivers should be overturned, giving Schumacher back his victory and 10 World Championship points and Coulthard his second place and six points.

The judges decided, however, that the teams were to blame and refused to award Constructors' points and fined Williams and Benetton $200,000 each.

The result of this was that Schumacher moves back to the top of the World Championship classification with 14 points, ahead of Damon Hill with 10, Jean Alesi 8 and Coulthard six. Gerhard Berger, who was leading the championship, dropped from first to fifth position. In the Constructors' Championship, Ferrari remains in the lead with 13pts, with Williams second on 10pts and Benetton third with 7.

After the verdict, Frank Williams declared himself satisfied with the decision; but from Italy came howls of protest from Ferrari, which pointed out - quite rightly - that it had lost points despite the fact that Williams and Benetton had been using illegal fuel.

"The verdict seems to imply that a driver can now win a Formula 1 race driving a car that does not confirm to the regulations," said a Ferrari press statement. The team's racing consultant ex-racer Niki Lauda went even further.

"It is the biggest joke ever in Formula 1," he said. "The richest team can run a car that breaks the rules, pay a fine and have its driver declared World Champion."

But now that the dust has settled, what does it all mean? Elf has probably learned a lesson and is unlikely to make the same mistake twice, and other fuel companies will be very careful not to get into a similar scrape with the FIA.

The drivers have their points back and the teams have had a financial slap on the wrist - which, no doubt, Elf will be paying. The only worrying thing is that the ICA has set a highly suspect precedent - although it can be argued that justice has been done - even if it does not seem to have been.

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