SEPTEMBER 8, 2008
Looking behind the Hamilton decision
The reaction in the international media to the decision of the Belgian Grand Prix stewards has been as damning as expected. Reaction to this website from fans has been equally damning. The popular British newspapers have been in full attack mode. The Daily Mail reports that Hamilton is the "victim of a conspiracy against McLaren", with the FIA heading a "polluted sport". The Daily Express says that the "puppeteers of the FIA have pulled the strings and made Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team dance to Ferrari's tune", while The Daily Mirror says that F1 is "back in the dock" and described the events in Spa as "another tawdry episode in the sport's history" and concluded that the "same old stench mars the sport and turns fans away" and "ruins the efforts of even the best competitors, taints the day and leaves fans wondering what exactly they are fans of." The Independent says that the events of Spa "will be long remembered as being farcical and disgraceful by all in motor racing".
In Italy the pro-Ferrari press has defended the decision (as one would expect) but in Germany multiple World Champion Niki Lauda waded in to attack the FIA, saying that this is "the worst judgement in the history of F1" and said that it was "absolutely unacceptable" that the stewards can influence the World Championship in this fashion.
The question now is whether the FIA will put its head down and try to ride out the storm or whether it will make an effort to justify the decision in an effort to be seen in a better light.
The federation says on a regular basis that it is not its job to be popular and that sometimes referees make decisions which are disputed. A counter argument is that referees in soccer do not have permanent officials involved in the process.
The Stewards do not act on their own. They react to reports delivered to them by the F1 Race Director. This is Charlie Whiting, a former Brabham F1 mechanic who worked his way up to the position and works out of the same office as Max Mosley in Monte Carlo. In Spa Ferrari very carefully made sure that the media knew that it had not protested the result of the race and that the action was based on a report from Whiting.
Once the report is received the three stewards look at the issues involved, but they do so in league with an FIA-appointed "stewards advisor". He does not put his name to the decision but is involved nonetheless. This is the role that is played by former European politician Alan Donnelly. It does not help matters that Donnelly has acted as one of Max Mosley's closest advisors and even as his official representative at races for a number of years and that his consulting company Sovereign Strategy (which is housed in an FIA-owned building in London) has advised Ferrari (but not the F1 team) and a number of F1 teams, When he was first appointed to the stewarding role in January there were questions about whether he was the right man for the job, but he insisted that his goal is to re-establish the credibility of the FIA Stewards, as he was well aware of the perceptions in F1 circles.
It is also important to know if there was any input at all from outside Race Control, if only to reassure the fans that there is no outside interference in the decision-making.
The most important thing however is that people need to understand how the decision was made, what the report from the Race Director said and why it was deemed necessary for the stewards to even consider the incident and not others that took place in the chaotic last couple of laps of the race. This will help observers understand how the three stewards (Nicholas Deschaux, Surinder Thatti and Yves Bacquelaine) came to the decision they reached.
The three men are interesting in that Surinder Thatti is a Tanzanian who now sits on the FIA World Council representing Kenya. This may seem odd but in FIA circles is not unusual at all. An Indian represented China at the FIA for years and one of the members of the FIA Senate has represented at least three different countries in the course of his FIA career. Thatti is seen as a close ally of Max Mosley as head of the FIA Confederation of African Countries in Motorsport (CACMS). He was the official who complained some months ago about the appearance of Sebastien Loeb on the podium of the Mexican Rally.
Deschaux is the young head of the Federation Francaise du Sport Automobile, which sanctions French motor sport and promotes the French GP. He was one of the leading critics of Mosley at the FIA General Assembly this summer and is widely seen as a rising star with a good brain and it is hard to understand how he would have been a party to such a dubious decision, unless he was outvoted by the other stewards. Little is known of the locally-nominated steward Yves Bacquelaine, except that he is one of the leading members of the Royal Automobile Club of Belgium.
It is possible that the FIA could save face by overturning the decision using the FIA International Court of Appeal, although there is an argument that a drive-through penalty cannot be protested and thus the 25sec replacement penalty cannot be changed. Having said that on occasion the World Council has overturned stewards' decisions, notably in 1997 when an extraordinary session was called after the FIA stewards in Jerez declared that the Michael Schumacher's collision with Jacques Villeneuve was "a racing incident", which was clearly not the case at all.
About the only good news in the whole affair for the FIA is that Max Mosley will go to Monza next week without needing to worry about being embarrassed by a large number of media questions about his sexual adventures and the ensuing scandal that rocked the FIA this summer. The F1 media will be busy dealing with this new scandal.
However, one does have to ask whether going from one scandal to the next is really the best way for the FIA to operate.
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