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FIA clamp down on driving standards - too little, too late?

THOSE of a cynical mind in the Suzuka paddock - and there are many such individuals - interpreted the edict on driving standards issued by Race Director Charlie Whiting at the Japanese GP drivers' briefing as another example of the FIA's determination to effectively interpret the rules as the mood takes it.

"Why don't the FIA simply issue a blanket rule saying 'we will decide what we think is right and wrong as we feel like it on any particular day'" said one exasperated F1 engineer. Understandably, he preferred to remain anonymous. Such is the tension within the F1 business these days, he can be sympathized with. Free speech, while certainly permitted, is not always something which seems to be welcomed.

The bare facts of the matter were as follows. The drivers were warned that they would have to play close attention to their driving etiquette with the threat that unsportsmanlike tactics could be met with draconian penalties. There was mention of three race suspensions, a step which, at this stage of the season, would inevitably take them into the 2001 season.

This in itself was an interesting concept, as I well recall FIA president Max Mosley arguing against such penalties spilling over from one season into another following Michael Schumacher's exclusion from second place in the 1997 World Championship. However, that was not an issue which was of pressing importance at Suzuka. Everybody simply wanted to know what on earth was legal and what on earth wasn't.

McLaren boss Ron Dennis sought clarification. "Does this mean driving like Michael Schumacher did in Malaysia last year is acceptable?" he inquired. "No," replied Charlie Whiting in what represents something of a spectacular about-face by the governing body. In that race, by any objective standard, Schumacher drove shamefully to hold up Hakkinen in third place while his Ferrari team-mate Eddie Irvine stormed ahead to win.

Dennis should not have been surprised. His team is currently poised to scrap a 4 million dollar radical gearbox development program which the FIA, having approved all its drawings and systems over a two year period, now seem suddenly to have major reservations about.

The stern ruling from the FIA could put the Ferrari and McLaren number two drivers Rubens Barrichello and David Coulthard under enormous pressure in the Japanese Grand Prix as both men were expected to have a tactical role in the race, each attempting legitimately to help their respective colleagues.

However, drivers have been warned by the sport's governing body to watch their driving etiquette with the threat that obstructive and unsportsmanlike tactics could be met with draconian penalties.

Schumacher reported that Whiting had said that any offending drivers would be warned by a waved black and white flag and then disqualified from the race by a black flag.

"It is right," said Schumacher. "They (Michael Schumacher and Hakkinen) should be left to fight it out for the title. A three race ban is about right."

Interestingly, this ruling at Suzuka comes less than two weeks after Michael Schumacher slammed Coulthard for bumping wheels with him during their battle for the lead of the US grand prix at Indianapolis. Schumacher later withdrew his allegations after watching video coverage of the race and acknowledged that the Scot had in fact done nothing which was out of order.

Drawing a fine line between defensive driving as permitted under the current regulations, and deliberate blocking, particularly at this circuit which has a history of strategic driving between team-mates.

In 1997 Eddie Irvine helped slow Michael Schumacher's rivals and allowed the German driver through into the lead. That same year Villeneuve was racing under appeal after a trifling rule infringement during practice resulted in his exclusion from the race.

In fairness, many F1 insiders welcome Whiting's firm words as an indication that the FIA is poised to get tough on indisciplined driving.

However, they also feel they also feel there is a reckless lack of consistency implicit in trying to implement such rules at the end of a season in which the "one move" regulation - which Michael Schumacher has harnessed to legitimize what once would have been regarded as unacceptable tactics - has become the accepted norm.

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