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OCTOBER 25, 1999

The Malaysian mess unravelled

THE FIA International Court of Appeal has overturned the exclusion of the Ferrari team from the results of the MalaysianÊGrandÊPrix, a move which means that Eddie Irvine goes to the final round of the year with a four point advantage over Finland's Mika Hakkinen. The McLaren driver must now win the Suzuka race if he wants to win his second title. If that happens Irvine cannot be champion as second place is not enough to beat Hakkinen. The two drivers will be equal on points but Hakkinen will win the title because he will have five wins to Irvine's four. In the Constructors' Championship Ferrari has a four-point advantage over McLaren.

This means that the Suzuka race is likely to be a head-to-head battle between Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher. The German is now in a position to guarantee World Championship victory for his Ferrari team mate Irvine by winning the race and taking points from Hakkinen. There will be none of the blocking tactics which were witnessed in Malaysia. A win from Schumacher could also move the German into third place in the Drivers' Championship, ahead of David Coulthard. Everything is set for a grandstand finish in Japan - and there are more than a few people in the Formula 1 community who feel that perhaps this fact was rather more pivotal in the decision of the appeal court than the facts of the case.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis said that he was not surprised by the decision. "We believe the push now for our sport has inevitably become quite commercial," he said. "Everybody wants to have an exciting race in Japan, but I think the price we have paid for that one race is too great. It is a bad day for the sport. What has actually occurred is that through very heavy scrutiny of our rules a way has been found to provide a reason for the appeal to be upheld."

"I am convinced that Ferrari's miscalculation was a mistake. But even if this oversight had a negative influence on the performance of the car that is immaterial. The regulations state that the car must comply, and that rule has been rigorously enforced over many years of Grand Prix racing."

"There are politics in every sport and the real losers today are not McLaren. The winners are not Ferrari. I feel the real losers are the genuine motor racing fans. The benefits of this decision are purely short-term and I don't think that it does any long-term good. And now this sport has lost a degree of its integrity."

Ferrari was successful by convincing the FIA judges that the measurements taken by the FIA Technical Delegate after the race were not correct and that the barge board in question was legal within the 5mm tolerance allowable in the regulations when the device was properly attached to the car.

The ruling added that the method of measurement used by the FIA Technical Delegate was "not necessarily in strict conformity with the regulations" and that the measuring equipment available in Malaysia "was not sufficiently accurate".

The decision was reached after a hearing in the Hotel Crillon in Paris at which Ferrari employed a team of five lawyers. Lawyers from the McLaren and Stewart teams were also present. The judging panel consisted of five of the 15 members of the International Court of Appeal: President Jos? Macedo e Cunha (Portugal), Gerhard Nurscher (Austria), PhilippeÊRobertiÊdeÊWinghe (Belgium), Vassilis Kousssis (Greece) and Jan van Rosmalen (Netherlands). By a curious coincidence three of the five were the same judges who made the controversial split-points decision after the Brazilian GP in 1995, the last successful appeal. It was only the fourth time in 25 years that an appeal had been accepted.

The result was made all the more curious by the fact that during the days leading up to the court hearing Ferrari was admitting that it had made "an unfortunate error" but arguing that "there was absolutely no intention of trying to gain a performance advantage". Ferrari sporting director Jean Todt said that the team would be looking into the manufacturing process and admitted that he was ultimately responsible for "the negligence". While a Ferrari spokesman was quoted as saying that "we are holding our hands up and admit that we have made a mistake but we do not think the penalty fits the crime."

The team even went to the trouble of having independent experts look at the performance of the barge boards in question and produce a report which said that they gave no advantage. None of these arguments however were sufficient to overcome Article 2.7 of the Formula 1 technical regulations which clearly states that: "it is the duty of each competitor to satisfy the FIA technical delegate and the stewards of the meeting that his automobile complies with these regulations at all times during an event". The only way out therefore was to argue that the measurements were wrong.

The days before the hearing turned into a media circus with everyone concerned giving their opinions. Bernie Ecclestone called the exclusion "nonsense", while Niki Lauda supported McLaren, arguing that rules must be obeyed and that any decision other than Hakkinen staying as World Champion would be "a farce".

As a result of the media feeding frenzy on Saturday morning there was a huge mob of pressmen outside the Hotel Crillon and Eddie Irvine had to fight his way through the unruly masses, getting a bang on the head from a camera as he did so. The usually scruffy Irvine has clearly learned from previous mistakes with the FIA and was taking no chances as he turned up wearing a neat Ferrari blazer and matching tie.

The more cynical members of the F1 community were unamazed by the decision and predicted on the Sunday night in Malaysia that the whole business was simply a publicity stunt to keep the sport in the newspapers and that a way would be found to ensure that the Japanese GP at Suzuka would be a cliffhanger.

FIA President Max Mosley, aware that the decision is detrimental the FIA's image, told reporters after the announcement that Ecclestone had no involvement in the decision-making process.

"In financial matters, Mr. Ecclestone has great influence and people listen carefully to what he says," commented Mosley. "He has a small influence in making the rules, because he has one vote among 24 on our World Council. When it comes to enforcing the rules, he has no influence whatsoever and no-one, neither the Court of Appeal nor the Stewards, would pay any attention to his views. He is, of course, entitled to his opinion, but it is of no consequence whatsoever."