MAY 27, 2006

A landmark decision

It took seven and a half hours but finally the FIA stewards did the right thing. Michael Schumacher has been dumped to the back of the grid after the incident at the end of qualifying at Monte Carlo. For many in F1 this is a landmark decision. The Monaco Grand Prix is the big race of the year for sponsors and thus is of vital importance to the Formula 1 teams. They all want to do well at Monaco and the last thing they want is controversy or embarrassment. The decision by the FIA stewards on Saturday evening may have taken a long time coming but when it arrived it went down well with the media who had waited all evening for a ruling.

The federation has often been accused of being too lenient with Ferrari and of having stewards who do what they are told rather than what is right. The FIA recognised that there was a problem of perception and took the decision to appoint a permanent steward to be at each and every race. Tony Scott Andrews was low profile and not an FIA politician.

The Schumacher Case at Monte Carlo was his first big controversy in the new job and the decision that was finally handed down did much to restore faith in the system of stewards. The decision was plain good sense. The stewards listened the various stories from Michael Schumacher, his engineer Chris Dyer, the Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn and the team manager Stefano Domenicali. In addition the race director Charlie Whiting and software analyst Alan Prudom were consulted as was data evidence from the team and from the FIA. The stewards watched videos and did comparisons between the important lap and those that had been run previously. It was a thorough job and the conclusions threw out the cock-and-bull story put forward by Michael Schumacher and concluded that "the driver deliberately stopped his car on the circuit in the last few minutes of qualifying at a time at which he had thus far set the fastest lap time".

The decision was based on the data about that last lap that revealed that Schumacher had lost time in the middle sector of his last lap and arrived at Rascasse at a speed that was little if any different from his previous fast lap. Schumacher then braked heavily and locked up the front wheels.

"Having compared all relevant data the stewards can find no justifiable reason for the driver to have braked with such undue, excessive and unusual pressure at this part of the circuit," they wrote, "and are left with no alternative but to conclude that the driver deliberately stopped his car on the circuit."

This is, of course, an infringement and as the rules allow the stewards to cancel all of Schumacher's qualifying times, they decided to do exactly that and so force Michael to start the race at the back of the grid, alongside his team mate Felipe Massa, who had crashed early in the session.

Thus Ferrari will line up with its cars sharing the back row of the grid - a message that indicates that the stewards are not stupid; that such behaviour will not be tolerated - even from a man like Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher has done himself much damage in all of this. The media was outraged; his fellow drivers were furious and no-one had any sympathy. Winning is all very well and Michael has always been a winner but the stewards have finally sent out the message that winning at any cost is not acceptable. It is a message that the youngsters of today need to take in.

For many Schumacher has been the role model but, with this ruling, the FIA has made it clear that if Michael cannot control himself, he will be controlled by the stewards.

All things considered, it was an important moment for F1.