DECEMBER 28, 2007

Thoughts as the New Year beckons

Formula 1 goes in 2008 with a curiously contradictory image: things are going well, despite the sport's best efforts to be self-destructive. The success of Lewis Hamilton was such a great story that it put F1 back onto the front pages across the world. ING, Renault's new title sponsor, ended the year delighted with the success of its sponsorship, despite the fact that the Renault F1 team did a pretty poor job. The key point here is that results on the race track simply did not matter to the Dutch bank. Toyota, too, said that the results were not important because the association between F1 and Toyota is pushing up perceptions of Toyota even if the F1 cars are winning nothing.

This is all good news for the sport.

At the same time F1 needs to grasp that there is such a thing as bad publicity. A little intrigue is no bad thing but the public wants to see racing. They want heroes. They want F1 to be a world into which they can escape from the mundane. But they want fair competition. Games of power and money serve only to tarnish the dream, particularly if these affect what is happening on the race tracks. Even fervent Ferrari fans accept that this year's Constructors' title is a hollow victory and anyone who watched the decline of interest in athletics and the Tour de France knows the damage that can be done to a sport if it gets a reputation of not being fair.

The scandals of 2007 will fade but there will be a level of bitterness and mistrust on both sides that will remain. Perhaps there is also a feeling that scores must be settled. We hope not but we also understand that it is hard for people to swallow something if they consider it to be an injustice.

Whether the FIA likes it or not, the feeling in too many places is that justice was not done. One can argue that the FIA's actions have been in the best interest of the sport and we hope that this is the case even if we do not necessarily agree with the way things have been done. Justice, at least in conventional thinking, is about balance; about making sure that the punishment fits the crime and everyone is treated in the same way.

We believe that the FIA made the right decision about McLaren in July. That decision was objected to vehemently by Ferrari and was overturned in September. That second decision left many questions unanswered: there was no real evidence against McLaren; the $100m fine and the removal of McLaren from the Constructors' World Championship seemed to be wildly out of proportion with what was deserved. McLaren's response was to do everything possible to keep on racing and to try to win the Drivers' title. Its complaint against Renault was to try to show that its faults were commonplace in F1. It picked Renault because team boss Flavio Briatore had been one of McLaren's most vehement critics.

Briatore went remarkably quiet after that because a former Renault employee had moved to McLaren and had information about things that were happening inside Renault. This created a problem for the FIA, as it was intended to do. The last thing that the sport needed was a repeat performance of the McLaren case with the possibility that the Renault parent company would walk away from the sport. However the McLaren decision had set a precedent that should not be ignored.

The transcripts of the Renault case were deeply disquieting. There was an outbreak of collective amnesia amongst the Renault engineers which seemed anything but believable. And reading this one wondered what the FIA would have done if McLaren had answered the charges in the same way. The two cases simply did not equate.

Nor did the FIA's failure to address claims made by Nigel Stepney that Ferrari gained as much information as McLaren in the early part of the year because of the dialogue between himself and Mike Coughlan. The FIA hung on every word of the affadavit produced by Coughlan but argued that Stepney was a discredited source of information. Why was one man any more discredited that the other? And why was Renault's Phil Mackereth given the benefit of the doubt when Stepney was not? For that matter, why did the FIA show no interest in finding out how Spyker got hold of a drawing from rival Scuderia Toro Rosso and presented it as evidence that the Toro Rosso and the Red Bull were identical cars?

The argument that no-one made a complaint is simply not good enough. The police do not need to be invited to investigate crime.

By turning over every corner of the McLaren empire the FIA managed to find some e-mails that talked of "a mole" in Maranello. It was enough. McLaren had no choice but to admit a very carefully-worded defeat. The FIA had all the justification necessary for its earlier actions and enough to take further action if it chose to do so.

We accept that McLaren was caught out but we believe that before the September decision F1 had a completely different mind-set to that in December. Renault's chief designer Tim Densham said as much when questioned during the Renault case. Why, he was asked, did he not tell the senior management of the team of the existence of the McLaren drawings?

"I did not think it was important," he said. "Obviously this was before the more recent case between Ferrari and McLaren."

We fervently believe that if one went through the pre-September computer records of many of the teams one would find evidence of all kinds of things.

That is a personal opinion and cannot be proved one way or the other and it makes no sense for anyone to try. What is done is done and cannot be changed.

F1 espionage will go on but it will operate in the future in more secretive ways. There will not be paper trails and not even Hercules Poirot will be able to find the evidence.

So F1 heads into 2008 in the knowledge that the path ahead will not be easy. It is reminiscent perhaps of French writer Jean Paul Sartre's celebrated play Huis Clos in which three characters find themselves in a Second Empire drawing room and gradually realise that they are in Hell because the others in the room are there to hate them and to be hated. The conclusion is that "hell is other people" and one can imagine that some of those involved in F1 understand that feeling only too well - but are unable to leave.

And so what does one do? Sartre's conclusion was probably the only workable one.

"Well, well," said the lead character, "let's get on with it."