MARCH 30, 1998
Politics in Brazil
THE Formula 1 teams indulged in a huge political fight at Interlagos, centered on whether or not the directional braking systems being used by McLaren, Williams and Jordan were legal. In the days before the meeting began the FIA formalized a ban on regenerative electrical motors, thus closing a loophole which McLaren was rumored to have exploited in Australia with the electrical motors running the auxiliary pumps of the engine at certain places on each lap, giving the drivers what amounted to a boost button.
With this issue out of the way the Ferrari protests centered on the braking system which Ferrari claimed were illegal because they were in effect four-wheel-steering, traction-control and broke the rule which states that a braking system must operate at least two wheels at the same time. The protest also suggested that the systems were dangerous. Identical protests were lodged by Sauber and Minardi. Tyrrell lodged a separate protest against McLaren while Arrows protested McLaren and Williams. The only team not involved at all was Prost.
It was agreed that while the stewards were considering all the evidence the three teams would agree to disconnect their systems. The stewards delayed a hearing on the systems until Friday afternoon because the chief steward Nazir Hoosein was unwell and it was not until Saturday morning that the stewards handed down their decisions. The resulting document was remarkable in that it was written in English legal language, a major achievement for an Indian, a Czech and a Brazilian.
The decision declared the systems illegal because the primary purpose was steering and that the brakes operated on all four wheels. The stewards concluded that this amounted to four-wheel-steering. The decision censured Ferrari, Sauber and Minardi for inferring that the systems were dangerous. The other protests were not considered as the systems were banned as a result of the first protest.
McLaren's defense centered on the fact that the FIA Technical Department had cleared the system on several different occasions in the course of the last six months. The stewards stated that "the opinions expressed by the technical department are opinions and not decisions on the interpretation of the regulations which is the function of the stewards". This raised very serious issues as the FIA Technical Department has been completely undermined, leaving teams with no idea how to ask the FIA for binding clarifications.
As a result McLaren issued a statement saying it was "extremely surprised" by the decision and that it "seriously questions the process by which this stewards decision was taken". The team decided not to appeal to avoid further controversy but said that it felt that the FIA Technical Department should be "the ultimate determining technical authority in respect of interpretation of the F1 technical regulations" and added that it would seek consultation with the FIA to clarify the situation.
The stewards responded by referring the McLaren statement to the FIA, stating that it clearly showed that the team "does not accept the authority of the International Sporting Code as well as the authority of the stewards".
McLaren bosses realized that the FIA could interpret the statement as being in contravention of Article 1 of the International Sporting Code which states that all competitors must agree to observe all the provisions of the Code. They decided to back down, issuing another statement in which they suggested that the stewards had misinterpreted the earlier statement and that the team "fully accepts the authority of the FIA International Sporting Code and that of the stewards".
The general feeling in the F1 paddock was the stewards (and anyone who may have advised them) have seriously undermined the entire decision-making process for technical matters in F1. In addition many feel that the way in which stewards reach their decisions also needs to be examined. It is unlikely, however, that such issues will be addressed by the World Council as around half of the World Council members have acted as F1 stewards in the last couple of years.
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