SEPTEMBER 14, 2006
The danger of perceptions
The FIA has issued a clarification to the Formula 1 teams, regarding the way in which the question of blocking in qualifying is handled. This effectively gives more power to race director Charlie Whiting. The communication to the teams says that, in future, complaints that a driver has been impeded during qualifying "will no longer be referred to the stewards of the meeting" except in cases where it appears to those in Race Control that there has been "a clear and deliberate attempt to impede another driver". The FIA has justified this by arguing that "it is pointless for the stewards to engage in long and painstaking enquiries if competitors ignore clear scientific evidence and instead abuse the regulator".
This is an obvious swipe at Renault's reaction to the decision at Monza to drop Fernando Alonso down the grid for what was alleged to be a blocking manoeuvre, despite the fact that Alonso was more than 100m ahead of Massa. The FIA argues that it was right to punish Alonso and that it has data to prove that Massa lost time.
A large number of experienced F1 observers spoke out at Monza, believing that Alonso's penalty was outrageous. This group including former drivers-turned-commentators Martin Brundle and Niki Lauda. There have even been stories quoting F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone using the word "farce" in relation to the decision.
The new interpretation will give Whiting even more power, enabling him to throw out claims if he does not think they have any value.
The FIA may have the power to do such things and ignore criticism from within the sport but this would seem to be a seriously short-sighted way of looking at the problem, as this will do nothing to cure the perception that F1 is somehow being manipulated. Until recently such suggestions have always been brushed off by the FIA as being the work of conspiracy-theorists. Sadly, there is now statistical evidence to back up the claims. In a survey published on August 27 the German website F1total.com polled 5500 readers - a large survey by modern standards - and discovered that 50.35% of the German-speaking fans believed that the FIA manipulates the World Championship.
This is not good.
Inside the F1 paddock it is hard to find anyone who will be quoted on the subject but not at all hard to find people who believe the same thing.
They will not speak out because they are afraid of retribution - which is not a good a sign in itself.
Perception is not reality but that will not stop the championship being damaged if race fans start deciding that they do not like the way the sport is being run and turn off their TV sets.
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