Judgement Day

The FIA World Motor Sport Council meets today in extraordinary session to decide what should be done about Renault F1's race-fixing at last year's Singapore Grand Prix. The team has declined to contest the charges laid by the FIA, which amounts to a nice way of admitting them. The team principal and head of engineering Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds have both departed the team and Renault is hoping that this will be sufficient to indicate to the World Council that it has done all that it could do and that the FIA will punish the two men in question rather than the team. The fear in F1 circles is that a fine or a ban will drive Renault SA management to decide to quit the sport, which would leave two teams without engines. F1 has a sufficient number of teams for next year with 14 entries having been granted, despite the fact that the commercial arrangements are built around a maximum of 13 teams.

The FIA has said that there is no reason to suspect that Fernando Alonso was part of the plot. Nelson Piquet has been granted immunity on the basis that he told the truth and revealed the plot to the federation. The major question therefore is what will happen to Briatore and Symonds. Clearly there needs to be a serious sanction against the pair, but there are questions as to exactly what the FIA can legally do. The rules state that the federation can punish "any breach of the regulations committed by any organiser, official, competitor, driver, or other person or organisation". This would seem to cover the pair, although neither needs a licence to be involved in the sport. The FIA can thus announce something like a lifetime ban, but it is not clear whether would have any actual legal status.

Punishing the men rather than the team would go against the rule of collective responsibility that exist in the FIA International Sporting Code which states that "the entrant shall be responsible for all acts or omissions on the part of their driver, mechanic and passengers, each equally responsible for any breach of this code". This may be ignored on this occasion. In the past the FIA has let the Benetton team (the current Renault team before it was sold to the French company) off a cheating charge, ruling that illegal modifications were made by "a junior employee", however a year after that judgement Toyota's rally team was thrown out of the WRC for 12 months after the same defence was rejected.

In both cases it was very clear that the owners and the top management of the teams did not know what had been taking place and the inconsistency of the decisions has never been properly explained. In this current case, the owners did not know what was happening but the top management obviously did. There may be an argument that the team could go unpunished, although the executives involved would then have to be penalised in order for the federation to retain credibility. This is particularly true because of the safety element involved in the deliberate crash. This goes against everything that the FIA stands for in terms of safety and a failure to act would be a disastrous move for the federation.

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