Features - News Feature

DECEMBER 1, 1989

McLaren versus Jean-Marie Balestre


The recent battle between McLaren and the FIA/FISA looks set to spill over into the civil courts. The controversy was triggered by the accident involving the two McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on lap 47 of the Japanese GP. Senna was excluded from the results. The McLaren team appealed against the decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal: the highest court in motor sport.

The recent battle between McLaren and the FIA/FISA looks set to spill over into the civil courts. The controversy was triggered by the accident involving the two McLarens of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost on lap 47 of the Japanese GP. Senna was excluded from the results. The McLaren team appealed against the decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal: the highest court in motor sport.

What looked like a little more than a token appeal turned into a major issue when McLaren arrived at the court in Paris.

"We went there expecting to defend a case of shop-lifting," said Ron Dennis, "and we were faced defending car theft, shoplifting, rape, murder and pillage.

McLaren has indicated that it intends to fight the decision, despite warnings from FISA that the authority of the FIA International Court of Appeal has not previously been defeated in the civil courts.

"As far as McLaren is concerned, this is not going to to get tucked under the carpet," continued Dennis. "What took place was wrong -- fundamentally wrong -- done for the wrong reasons and fundamentally unfair.

"This is ultimately going to touch everyone in motorsport. Somewhere along the line these decisions -- and the way they were taken -- that method has to come to a stop. We think it has gone far enough.

"We realise the damage we could possibly inflict on motor sport in dragging this through the possible avenues that are available to us, but we think it is important because it is the fundamental principle under which we run our company. If you start playing with the fundamental principles you might as well stop."

In specific terms Dennis called into question a number of the procedures which took place.

"The first point is that the podium procedure is never suspended," he said during a detailed -- and carefully-worded -- press conference in Adelaide.

"It's a very unique situation. The normal procedure is that the drivers go onto the podium. (In Suzuka) there were drivers hovering, told not to mount the podium." Dennis questioned how this could occur.

He also outlined the confusion over the documents supplied to the FIA International Court of Appeal.

"The documents we signed for in Japan were not the same documents that were put forward to the Court of Appeal," he said. "What was originally Stewards' Decision No 17 had become Stewards' Decision No 16 with a very badly executed change of the 7 to a 6.

"And we were faced with an additional document No 17, which brought out other issues which we were asked to defend. That was one part of it.

"The Stewards' report, which was meant to be prepared at the event, was extremely lengthy and brought into question a whole range of issues for which we were not prepared, and for which we had not prepared a defence."

The day before the Court of Appeal met for the first time -- on October 26 -- McLaren called a press conference for the following Monday (October 30). This was an odd move.

"Under normal circumstances," explained Dennis, "everybody expected an answer on Friday. We were under no illusions about the outcome of the Court of Appeal and that we were going to have to wait for a decision towards the middle of this week."

Dennis, therefore, revealed details and documents on the Monday prior to the FIA Court's announcement.

"We weren't looking to influence the outcome of the appeal," he said mysteriously. "We knew what the outcome of the appeal would be...

"We realised that it was only the first step in a long road and I was keen to put before the press all the circumstances and facts that surrounded it.

"What we are giving you doesn't contain what took place in that appeal court.

"It's important to look carefully at the documents. There is no short cut to understanding what took place. This is a complex situation. It involves the application of quite a large ranging group of regulations and at all times it is important to remember that these regs have to be interpreted.

"The rules are there for the benefit of everybody. They are not there to be used as a weapon.

"What we are fighting for is a consistent application of the regulations. And to take away from our sport, both in this matter and in future matters, the ability of decisions to be taken so quickly and without sufficient evidence.

"In this instance," he added, "the tone and the mood coming from the year was one that was very condusive to the decisions that were taken."

Honda Marlboro McLaren supplied the media with copies of eight documents central to the controversy. These were the two versions of Stewards' Decision 17; Stewards' Decision 16; two FIA press releases (one from Sunday 22 October the other from Friday October 27) and the documentation which was presented to the FIA Court: the Report of the Stewards; the McLaren appeal and the FISA report supporting the Stewards' report.

Study of these documents raises important questions. Notably the confusion over the Decisions 16 and 17. What, then, are the differences between them?

Stewards' Decision 17, as signed for by McLaren, was identical to Stewards' Decision 16 presented to the FIA International Court of Appeal, with one difference. At the bottom of Decision 16 are the words 'McLaren Team appealed at 15:25hrs'. This addition was countersigned by John Corsmit.

The Decision 17 which was presented to the court was identical in wording to sections of Decision 16. There was only one addition: the mention of Article 63.

Article 63 of the Sporting Code states that: "A breach of the provisions of the Code or the Sporting Regulations relating to general safety discipline shall result in the exclusion of the car and driver concerned from the Event."

This document featured a hand-written time of 14:55, but it was not signed for by Dennis and Senna.

Further questions are raised by the Report of the Stewards.

Article 140 of the Sporting Code says that "the Stewards of the Meeting shall as soon as practicable after the close of the meeting sign and send to the ASN a closing report..."

The Stewards Report put before the court was not signed by any steward.

McLaren's insistence to continue the case suggests that the team feels it has a case in the civil courts, despite the fact that FISA has obtained several rulings in the past. One of these stating quite clearly that: "it does not behove the (civil) judge to interfere with the life of a grouping or association as long as it is normal and in compliance with the statutes".

Dennis echoed this judgement during his Adelaide press conference: "What's taken place is not right," he said. "It's not constitutional and it's not consistent with the statutes that are laid down in the FIA or the FISA."

We put some of these questions to FISA President Jean-Marie Balestre and to the three stewards of the Japanese GP.

John Corsmit, the Chief Steward of the Japanese GP and the Dutch member of the World Motor Sports Council, replied from Hong Kong, but declined to make any comment, referring the questions to the FISA Secretariat; Burdette Martin Jr, the ACCUS delegate to FISA, a Vice-President of the FISA and a member of the FIA Committee, told us that the writing of the Stewards' Report was "the responsibility of the Chairman and it is quite normal for him to do it by himself."

Martin defended Balestre saying there was no pressure placed on the Stewards from outside influences.

When we asked for specific answers to specific questions, however, Martin declined to answer in an official capacity.

We have yet to receive a reply from the third steward, Takayoshi Ohashi of Japan.

President Balestre did agree to reply to our questions. His answers can be seen in the accompanying panel.

Whatever the next steps in the dispute, the battle lines are drawn for a fight. President Balestre has warned that in the affair "prestigious heads may risk a fall".

It remains to be seen to which heads he was referring.