NOVEMBER 12, 2007

Oh, what a tangled web

Back in September we wrote a story saying that the sport was going to have trouble as a result of the FIA World Council's decision relating to McLaren having brought the sport into disrepute. It was called "Holding down the lid of Pandora's Box". The announcement that Renault is now up before the council and has admitted to some of the charges means that the lid has come clean off. No amount of spin-doctoring nor smokescreen creation can obscure the fact that the situation is already worse than the one that led to McLaren's penalty in September. The McLaren precedent means that, in theory at least, the FIA has no real choice but to apply the same processes as were applied in September. And it would have to apply the same kind of penalty.

Flavio Briatore may tell anyone who cares to listen that there is no comparison to the case of McLaren and that it is different because the passage of information in McLaren's case was ongoing and on a bigger scale, but the FIA rules do not quantify what brings the sport into disrepute. You either do it or you do not do it. And it would be interesting to hear Briatore explaining the actions of Phil Mackereth without sounding an awful lot like Ron Dennis trying to explain Mike Coughlan.

The question is really only over the punishment. The key point is that Renault is admitting that McLaren data was loaded into its computers and that "some" engineers saw that data. They may say that they did not use it but that is no different to what the McLaren people said.

Thus there is an argument that the punishment would have to be at least as harsh, perhaps harsher, than that given to McLaren. At the same time everyone knows that Renault boss Carlos Ghosn has said several times that his company is only interested in being in Formula 1 if it brings the firm commercial benefits. This is not going to do that. It is entirely possible that Renault could walk away and one can imagine that this possibility might help to sway the decision-making process of the World Council.

The FIA could try to to give Renault a lesser punishment and brazen it out but such a course of action will lead not only to merciless criticism of the governing body for inconsistent decision-making but will also increase the perception that McLaren is being treated unfairly. That would not help to fix the problems, it would drive the sport deeper into trouble.

Fans, media, manufacturers and sponsors might all start to turn their backs and walk away.

Perceptions are often reality in F1 these days but not always. The reality is that if Renault were to get off with a lighter punishment than McLaren, then the Woking team would be entirely within its rights to claim that the federation has not been fair in punishing one team and allowing other teams to get away with similar offences with a lesser punishment. In the worst case scenario this could lead to a complaint to the European Union and a threat to the FIA's position as the regulatory body of the sport. The member states of the European Union agreed in the Nice Declaration of 2000 that they would support "the independence of sports organisations and their right to organise themselves through appropriate associative structures" but only if this was done, "with due regard for national and community legislation and on the basis of a democratic and transparent method of operation".

The FIA later joined forces with the European Olympic Committee to declare in the "Statement of Good Governance Principles" that sports governing bodies should be "fair, transparent, accessible and efficient".

The "Statement of Good Governance Principles" includes another clause which offers the federation an opportunity to get itself out of the current mess. It states that that: "No person sitting in any decision-making capacity on an arbitration or appeal board or panel should have any interest in the outcome of any dispute". How then can there be an FIA Fund set up using the McLaren money that will benefit FIA member clubs when the World Council is made up of representatives of those same member clubs? One can argue that only those clubs who did not have members on the World Council would be eligible for the cash, but that is scraping the barrel.

Probably the best idea for the FIA would be to decide that there cannot be an FIA Fund and to declare that the McLaren decision was improper.

McLaren was found guilty of Article 151c of the FIA International Sporting Code which states that competitors must not be involved in "any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally". There is an argument that McLaren cannot be found guilty of fraudulent conduct without first being found guilty of such charges in a court of law. The World Council is not a court of law and there is an argument as to whether it has the legal right "with due regard for national and community legislation" to decide whether someone has stolen intellectual property or not.

If the FIA was to admit that it overstepped the mark when it decided to rule on the McLaren case, the problems would be solved. The McLaren and Renault cases could both be referred to civil courts and when those cases were over the FIA could then decide if either team was guilty of Article 151c. Beating a retreat from the current position is probably not something that those in power at the FIA wish to do but it is really up to the FIA General Assembly to decide. If the alternative course of action is to put the FIA's position in jeopardy, the General Assembly has the power to make changes.

This is all speculation at the moment but one thing that has emerged is that the times are changing and the sport must change with them.

Gone are buccaneering days when everyone was copying everyone else, when problems could be solved by banging heads together. The bosses in F1 must either adapt to the modern ways or disappear. Today there is too much money involved in the sport to avoid the need for proper transparent governance and accountability. It is a new corporate era and we are seeing more and more that the old ways simply do not work. We saw that first at Indianapolis in 2005 and we are seeing it again now.

One day this era of F1 history will be seen as a transition period when attitudes were forced to change. All the stakeholders in F1 should - and must - look ahead, accept the necessary changes and then push onward and upward.