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APRIL 25, 2005

The problems with BAR at Imola

The problems after the race in Imola with regard to the BAR-Honda team raise a number of questions: some legal, some political and, for the moment at least, there is little in the way of answers.

The big question is what was going on for six hours between the apparent problem emerging in the scrutineering bay and a decision being made by the FIA Stewards that there was not a problem.

Before going further it is best to explain exactly who is involved in this complex issue. The FIA Stewards are a group of three officials. Their job is to be the judges of the event. Together they rule on any problems that are presented to them by the race officials. They are allowed access to whatever evidence is deemed to be necessary, which often includes video, telemetry, recordings of radio exchanges and so on. They then make a decision. Their decision can be appealed. Two of them are international and are appointed by the FIA. The federation pays their expenses to go to the races. The third is an official nominated by the local motorsport authority.

It is not easy to make the right decisions but all the signs are that on Sunday night in Imola, the procedures were followed properly. The stewards asked BAR to explain why the car was under the weight limit when it was weighed without fuel. BAR presented the stewards with data that proved that the car had been legal at all times, which is what is necessary under the rules. The stewards looked at the arguments put forward and accepted them. It is not clear why it took six hours to achieve this decision as the issues involved are not hugely complicated and, even if there are other elements which we do not currently know about, the technical rules are fairly clear on most matters, indeed they have been designed to be so, placing the emphasis on the teams to prove that the cars are legal rather than FIA having to prove that they are not. BAR appears to have done this very successfully.

The interesting thing about the decision to appeal is that it is not clear how or why the FIA would have come up with evidence that was not presented to the stewards. It is the federation's own officials who supply the information to the stewards. Thus an FIA appeal against itself will inevitably cast someone in a bad light. One must assume that the FIA technical people presented the stewards with all the facts that were known. If this is not the case then the officials involved will be in trouble either for not revealing everything or not being competent.

The stewards do make odd decisions from time to time but they are chosen (in theory at least) because they are men of experience and are wise in the ways of motorsport. They are usually FIA politicians and so understand that it is best not to rock the boat.

The most mysterious thing in this case is that when mistakes are made the FIA usually plays them down, which is the logical reaction. In 2001 at Indianapolis, for example, one of the FIA stewards went home before all the necessary documents had been signed. These meant that the decisions were not valid. But at the time it was not the FIA which took action against itself. The Jordan team appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal ruled in the team's favour. The FIA did not take any action against those involved, indeed the chairman of the stewards on that occasion was one of the stewards at Imola at the weekend.

Thus, it is a mystery why in this particular case the federation feels the need to air its dirty washing in public.

There are, inevitably, going to be suggestions that there are different agendas involved in what is going on at the moment because BAR-Honda is one of the seven teams that has made it clear that it is siding with the teams and manufacturers in the current spat over the future of the sport. The FIA reaction to this is what one would expect, being along the lines of "Well, they would say that, wouldn't they?"

That is a fair point because there is no shortage of conspiracy theories in the paddock. Having said that the political reality of the current situation is such that it is not in the interest of any "rebel" team to leave itself open to attack, indeed it would be stupid for any team in such a situation to risk deliberate cheating. In addition to that there are many who find it hard to imagine that the people at BAR would be involved in such activities. The important players all have good reputations and records of integrity in such matters .

The details of what BAR is supposed to have done remains a mystery. There is talk of extra fuel tanks but our understanding of the current trend in F1 is that lots of teams have extra tanks but these are located within the main fuel tank. This is done to ensure that fuel flows into the engine without air getting into the system so that engines can be as efficient as possible. No doubt the details of the case will be laid out in full at the Court of Appeal in Paris on May 4.

In one respect, if nothing else, the FIA is in a winning position because whatever the court of appeal decides to do, it will come away with an enhanced reputation as it will either condemn FIA officials and thus demonstrate its independence or it will agree that BAR-Honda is innocent, which amounts to the same thing.

The loser in all of this is BAR because even if the team is cleared (again), there are going to be discussions about what is going on inside the car which is presumably not something that the teams wants to see happening. In addition to that when there are suggestions of cheating there are always some who do not look beyond the headlines.