AUGUST 26, 2006
The policing of Formula 1
The Formula 1 world has already moved on from the mass damper affair but perhaps it is worth considering for a moment that this is not the first time that the FIA technical department has changed an interpretation of the technical regulations - it's own interpretation at that - at an inopportune moment. Inevitably, in such a competitive environment, this leads to discontented mumblings in the motorhomes that the federation is somehow manipulating the World Championship. This year it was more than a rumble with Flavio Briatore going on the record on the subject - an outburst that cannot have pleased the image-conscious folk at the FIA.
In a perfect world its engineers would be one step ahead of the racing teams with a team clever enough to anticipate different interpretations of the rules and regulations and to take pre-emptive measures. The problem is that top class engineers get paid more money to work for the racing teams and the FIA technical people are seriously out-numbered by 12 teams of smart engineers, all of them looking for an advantage. The FIA argues that it can do no more than it does because it does not have the money nor the equipment to do the necessary research.
Having said that, the F1 teams do have to come to the federation and ask for its opinion on technical areas and, it appears, there are formal and informal ways of doing this, including Article 2.4 of the technical regulations which states that teams can seek clarification for new systems by means of applications which must include a full description of the design or system; and give its opinions on what the system does, what implications there are elsewhere on the car and what long-term effects there may be as a result of its use. Beyond that informal opinions can be given but the teams are then exposed to sudden changes in the opinion of the FIA engineers.
The key question, however, is the timing of such changes of opinion. In 2003, for example, the FIA declared that Michelin's front tyres would have to be changed because the federation had decided to change the way in which it was measuring tyre wear. According to the Sporting Regulations at the time the tread width of the front tyres should not exceed 270mm "when new". Michelin used this loophole to build tyres that were legal when measured but which flexed in such a way as to create additional tread width. At the time Michelin pointed out that it had a written agreement from the FIA that its front tyres complied with the regulations, but ultimately this counted for nothing.
There was no actual punishment in the Michelin case but there was huge disruption for the French tyre manufacturer and the teams involved, as they had to build and test new tyres at a critical part of the season. McLaren and Williams, the two teams involved, were beaten to the World Championship. This may be entirely coincidental but one can also see why conspiracy theorists have a field day.
The mass damper issue has coincided with a marked decline in the performance of the Renault at some tracks and the advantage that the team had this year has been reduced considerably. Again, the revised interpretation of the FIA's own rule came at what might best be described by Renault as an inopportune moment. Mass dampers had, after all, been deemed legal since October last year when Renault first ran them in Brazil.
Some would argue that the upsurge in Renault's fortunes after that, which resulted in the team winning the World Championship, was down to the mass dampers so that Renault drew benefit on that occasion and so should not complain too loudly. Then again one can argue that on both occasions when the rules were retrospectively re-interpreted, Ferrari drew the most benefit from the situation.
The current system thus creates the potential for bad publicity and it would be best if the FIA could find a system in which there are no grey areas and no need to make sudden changes that can have serious implications on the results of the races.
Or else make decisions and stick to them and not succumb to lobbying from parties with vested interests. That might result in protests and appeals but in those cases the FIA would not be the one getting the flak.
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