NOVEMBER 17, 1997
A controversial decision
IF the bad publicity surrounding F1's involvement in the Labour Party was not enough, last week Grand Prix racing made itself look ridiculous when the FIA World Council decided that Michael Schumacher would not face any serious punishment as a result of his cynical attempt to take Jacques Villeneuve out of the Grand Prix of Europe at Jerez and thus assure himself of the World Championship.
Max Mosley said that the World Council had come to the conclusion that Schumacher's swerve into Villeneuve was "instinctive and deliberate but was not premeditated."
Mosley said that the World Council had considered banning Schumacher in 1998 but had concluded that to do so would be "futile, because there is no driver competing in 1998 who would not be ready to accept a ban in 1999 if he could win the Championship in 1998".
Mosley said a ban in 1998 would not be a deterrent and that as a result the World Council had decided to exclude Schumacher from the final results of the 1997 F1 World Championship, although he would keep his race results. He defended the decision saying that if Villeneuve had not been able to continue at Jerez, Schumacher's punishment would have removed him from the World Championship and Villeneuve would have still have won the title.
"Most important of all," Mosley said, "is that this sends a message to all drivers at all levels of the sport, that if you do something you should not and a championship is at issue, then you will be excluded from that championship and you cannot possibly gain anything by engaging in an illegitimate act."
The FIA President said that the council had also considered a fine but had instead insisted that Schumacher take part in an FIA road safety campaign in 1998.
But the European media did not agree that this was "a major penalty". Das Bild, the country's leading tabloid described the ruling as "crazy." Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung said that the FIA had lost all credibility with the decision. "It was illogical behavior," the newspaper said. "They issued a ridiculous penalty. Schumacher could not care less about taking a few hours of traffic safety courses and losing his second place this year. Why did the FIA not suspend him for next year?" The paper also pointed out the inconsistency in FIA decision-making, pointing out that Villeneuve was disqualified in Suzuka after ignoring a yellow flag but Schumacher's move at Jerez was not punished at all."
The British press was similarly appalled by the decision and F1 came in for considerable criticism as a result of the decision and the political ructions. The Daily Telegraph called the decision "scandalous" and said that motor sport's credibility had been demolished. "It is as much a blatant dereliction of duty as that of the race stewards at Jerez who failed to react after the incident," the newspaper said. Britain's biggest tabloid The Sun ran a story with the headline "Carry on ramming" and said that the FIA and Schumacher deserve each other and concluded "they are the pits."
The Daily Mail said that the inquiry into Schumacher's move at Jerez had ended up with the FIA judges being on trial. "The charge they face from hostile world public opinion is one of whitewash," said the paper. The Guardian was similarly dismissive of the decision and asked whether Schumacher's involvement in the road safety campaign would have him lecturing from "the Highwayman's Code."
Schumacher said he accepted the penalty but continued with the charade that the crash had been "a mistake". "It is quite a tough decision," he said. "The most important thing is for me to learn from it, to look to the future."
Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents later questioned the logic of using Schumacher as a role model in safety campaigns after he had admitted deliberately forcing Villeneuve off the road.
"There is a dichotomy between what he does in his professional life and what he is going to be saying," commented Dave Rogers, the organization's Safety Officer. "He is going to be preaching road safety and yet he admitted he closed the door on Villeneuve."
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