JULY 13, 1998

Scandal at Silverstone

THE FIA Stewards ran into trouble at Silverstone on Sunday over the handling of a time penalty for Michael Schumacher.

THE FIA Stewards ran into trouble at Silverstone on Sunday over the handling of a time penalty for Michael Schumacher.

The German overtook Alexander Wurz's Benetton under yellow flags on lap 43 of the British GP. The stewards studied the evidence and decided after 24 minutes (there is a limit of 25 minutes in the regulations) that Schumacher should be penalized 10 seconds. The Ferrari team was not notified of the penalty until seven minutes after it had been decided and there was confusion as the note from the stewards did not specify if this was a "stop-go" penalty or whether the 10-seconds would be added to Schumacher's race time after the event.

Ferrari said that the official who delivered the document did not know to which rule the penalty referred and that a note citing the regulation in question was handwritten and it was not clear whether it referred to Article 57C or 57E: one of which is a reference to a stop-go penalty and the other to a time penalty.

The team decided to bring Schumacher in at the end of the last lap to comply with the regulation which demands that drivers stop within three laps of being notified of a penalty. Schumacher thus did not cross the finish line and take the chequered flag but came into the pitlane and stopped at the Ferrari pit, causing considerable confusion. By crossing the timing beam in the pitlane entrance he finished the race before the penalty was applied and so, in the minutes after the race ended, it was decided that 10secs would be added to his race time. This made no difference to the result but this was met with a protest from McLaren, because the stewards only have the right to take such action in the incident occurs in the last 12 laps of the race (which was not the case).

McLaren argued that Schumacher should have been given a 10-second stop-go penalty which would have lost him around 25secs by the time he had been in and out of the pits and Hakkinen might have won as a result.

As neither penalty could be justified the stewards were forced, some hours after the race, to rescind the time penalty imposed, as it could not apply in the circumstances. As it was their mistake the stewards could not easily punish Schumacher with a larger penalty and so decided not to punish the Ferrari driver in any way, an announcement which brought howls of protest from the paddock. McLaren immediately announced that it would appeal the decision as in previous cases such an incident has resulted in a stop-go penalty and if that had been applied properly Schumacher might not have won the race.

The FIA International Court of Appeal is expected to hear the case before the Austrian GP in two weeks.