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Race-rigging or press manipulation?

THE TIMES newspaper in London on Saturday accused Williams and McLaren of colluding to arrange the finishing order at the end of the Grand Prix of Europe at Jerez. The newspaper - which is not the journal of record which it used to be - said that it had unearthed tape recordings of radio transmissions between Williams pit crew and Jacques Villeneuve which, it claims, reveals that the team orchestrated the finish. The newspaper added that its investigations have led the FIA to hold an inquiry into the race.

There is little doubt that at the end of the race the Williams engineers told Jacques Villeneuve not to worry about Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard. The team was worried that Ferrari driver Eddie Irvine - who was lying in fourth place five seconds behind Villeneuve but with three cars between him and Jacques - might try to do something silly to stop Villeneuve getting to the finish.

Irvine was lapping faster than Villeneuve but only at the same speed as the two McLarens. They lost time switching places on lap 67 which enabled Irvine to close right up to Coulthard but on his next lap David was quicker than Eddie. On the last lap Irvine was badly chopped by Giancarlo Fisichella - a lap down in his Jordan - and lost his place to Gerhard Berger.

The two McLarens were very close behind Villeneuve in those last couple of laps and were faster. There was no need for Villeneuve to win the race to take the title and he did not want to tangle with either Hakkinen or Coulthard and so Jacques let him pass.

The only evidence suggesting that something was amiss were repeated messages from Villeneuve's engineer Jock Clear saying that Mika Hakkinen was "very helpful" and the comment just before Hakkinen took the lead that "we discussed this". These comments prove nothing. Clear and Villeneuve could easily have agreed before the race to let the McLarens go if the situation arose.

After every race the FIA issues the individual lap times of each driver throughout a race and these show that there was no obvious collusion going on. If Coulthard did slow Irvine for a lap there is nothing against that as the whole F1 season has been about faster cars being stuck behind slower ones.

The Times "revelations" include a transcript of the conversations between Ferrari's Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher which show that Ferrari was listening in to Williams's radio. At one point Brawn says "we have just heard Frentzen say he has problems with his rear tires".

During the weekend Frank Williams told The Observer newspaper that he understood from sources in Italy that the tapes had "been distributed widely by Ferrari" but The Sunday Telegraph reported that Bernie Ecclestone had a copy of the tapes on October 30 at the F1 team bosses meeting and that he made "various insinuations" about them.

Williams said that his team had talked to several other teams about race tactics but only because there were worries that Villeneuve might be held up. "The only time Jacques had a problem," Frank said, "was when Fontana's Sauber let Schumacher through without any problem, and then cost Jacques 2.5s in five corners."

Williams did not mention that the Sauber uses a Ferrari engine, badged as a Petronas. Williams said that he knew that Villeneuve and McLaren's Ron Dennis did talk before the race but that Dennis had simply told Jacques that the team did not intend to interfere.

Dennis attacked The Times newspaper for running the story. "I am extremely disappointed that such a prestigious newspaper can print a story not supported by the facts," he said. "It appears to be a deliberate attempt to tarnish the very successful image of Williams and McLaren."

The Times article claimed that the tapes would be used to provide a defense for Schumacher when the FIA World Council meets on Tuesday but the more Machiavellian members of the F1 fraternity have concluded that the story is purely designed to stir up trouble and that the allegations may be used by the FIA to deflect attention away from the case against Schumacher. The governing body does not want to have to ban the sport's star driver from any of next year's races as it will affect his chances of winning the 1998 World Championship.

At the same time the governing body must be seen to do something after the extreme media criticism of the FIA stewards in Jerez. If this is the case, we would expect McLaren and Williams to be called before the FIA World Council when it meets on November 11. The two teams - rebels in the Concorde Agreement dispute remember - will have to answer charges of race-rigging. As there is no clear evidence to back up the allegations published they will be cleared of unsporting behavior and a similar judgment against Schumacher will thus be overshadowed and will not appear to be as outrageous as it would be if the case was judged by itself.

If this sounds far-fetched one should remember that the FIA did much the same thing in September 1994 when Benetton was in big trouble over its illegal refueling equipment. At the last minute McLaren was dragged before the World Council charged with using an illegal electronic gearbox system. The team denied the charge, saying that the FIA had a different interpretation of the rule. The World Council ruled that the system was illegal but let McLaren off without a penalty. The impact of doing the same to Benetton was thus watered down considerably.

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