NOVEMBER 17, 2007

The FIA Appeal Court decision

The decision of the FIA International Court of Appeal - and the way it was handled - has done nothing to add to the credibility of the FIA. Not that it was expected to do. The appeal process was something that the FIA wanted to avoid because it would either show that an FIA official (Jo Bauer) had made a mistake in the way in which he reported the temperatures of the fuel in the refuelling machines at Interlagos, or that the rules are in such a mess on this matter that no-one knew what was right and what was wrong. It is arguable which is worse. McLaren said, and some believed them, that this was not about the World Championship. They argued that it was about knowing what constitutes the rules. Well, yes, in part. It was also about putting the FIA in an embarrassing spot with a very public issue but given what has been done to the team this summer that is perhaps understandable.

The FIA chose to orchestrate matters in such a way as to make sure that the Court of Appeal decision received very little coverage. The first reports of the result came on the website in the middle of the afternoon. Was that a guess? The website, a sensible one in F1 terms, claimed that it had come "from a very good source". And it was right. So if the result was known at that time of the day, one is led to ask, why did the FIA delay an announcement until the middle of the evening?

The explanation of why the appeal was ruled inadmissible was not given, indeed not even McLaren knew the details on Friday night.

"We have not yet seen the text of the FIA International Court of Appeal decision," said Martin Whitmarsh of McLaren. "And we hope that clarification is provided. It's important to stress that the FIA Stewards' inquiry at the Brazilian Grand Prix was not triggered by any action from McLaren, but by a report written and made public by the FIA Technical Delegate, which drew the FIA Stewards' attention to what we regarded as a clear regulation breach on the part of BMW-Sauber and Williams. Our appeal was merely a logical and procedural step in the process begun by the FIA Technical Delegate's written report. We hope that this fuel temperature issue does not remain unresolved in Formula 1 next year but we look forward to working with the FIA and the teams on clarifying matters to avoid a similar situation occurring again."

Williams, which was not happy with the McLaren appeal because of the implications involved (and perhaps because McLaren has been sniffing around Nico Rosberg of late) greeted the decision and indicated that "the appeal of the Steward's decision was found to be inadmissible as McLaren failed to follow the correct and clearly documented protest procedure".

The rights of appeal are defined in the FIA Statutes and one of these items says that appeals against decisions by the stewards of a meeting can be lodged by "one of the parties concerned". One can argue that McLaren was not involved in the supposed offence but at the same time one can argue that McLaren was concerned because the result of the World Championship might rest upon the result. That seems like a decent argument that McLaren was concerned. Perhaps there are other contradictory references to the right to appeal elsewhere in the FIA paperwork but one would probably argue that the statutes of the organisation - the basic rules of the association - would over-rule any lesser arguments.

The other point that needs to be answered is why it took 36 hours to decide that the appeal was not admissible. There was an hour of argument at the beginning of the case about this and then the case went ahead and everyone listened to the evidence from the parties involved. Is it normal in a judicial process to decide that a case is inadmissible after the case has run its entire course? Would normal legal processes be pursued in such a fashion?

It would have been so much better for the FIA to have either thrown out the case at the beginning or to have addressed the issues fully and given a clear answer about the rights and wrongs involved.

The Williams statement did however point out that "there is no specified source for the ambient temperature measurement, and there is no homologated and sealed sensor for measuring fuel temperature either in the fuel rigs or on-board the cars" and added that its arguments were "consistent with all of the clarifications and opinions related to fuel temperatures expressed in Team Managers' Meetings and other such forums".

The problem has gone away. But the decision and, perhaps more obviously, the way it was delivered, gave the impression that it was something that needed to be shoved under the carpet.

The FIA has expended a great deal of effort in recent years trying to make people have more faith in the Court of Appeal. This is a good thing because it had little credibility until a few years ago. There are still questions to be answered: why were two of four judges the same names that we have seen over and over again over the years? This, the FIA explains, is because of availability. But then one must ask why judges are picked who never appear? Surely the availability should be one of the qualifications for the job, to ensure that people do not end up asking such questions. Or perhaps there should be some unimpeachable chief justice. The system of stewarding in F1 received a huge credibility boost when Tony Scott-Andrews appeared on the scene. You only had to meet the man to know that he was straight and that his decision would be based on the best interests of the sport. The Court of Appeal could use such a figure.

The FIA is very touchy on the subject of its governance. This is understandable. But the best response is to make decisions that follow the norms of legal processes and to change the system which allows critics to ask perfectly reasonable questions about how things are done.