Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Monday, October 25, 1999

Thankfully, a Race for the Title

Formula One

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - The International Automobile Federation's announcement in Paris that its court of appeal had overturned the disqualification of Ferrari from the Malaysian Grand Prix naturally caused the Ferrari team to celebrate and the McLaren team to cry foul.

''It's really, more than anything else, a bad day for the sport,'' said Ron Dennis, McLaren's director. He said that ''what has actually occurred is that through a very heavy scrutiny of our rules, which are extensive and very detailed,'' a way had been found ''to provide a reason for the appeal to be upheld.''

In fact, Ferrari has simply won an off-track battle using the same ruse, a scrutiny of the rules, that McLaren admitted Saturday that it had used to attack Ferrari.

Norbert Haug, the director of Mercedes Motorsport, McLaren's engine supplier, said that the team had indeed alerted the race stewards that they believed Ferrari's aerodynamic deflector did not fit the regulations. ''Our mechanics became suspicious,'' he said.

By taking first and second place in Malaysia, Ferrari was ahead, but not in the clear. Irvine had 70 points, Hakkinen 66. Ferrari had 118, McLaren 114.

But after the disqualification, Hakkinen had 72 points, and Irvine 60. As a victory is worth 10 points, Irvine could not have made up the margin even by winning in Japan. In the constructors' standings, McLaren had 120 points, to 102 for Ferrari, so Ferrari could not have won even by getting 16 points for finishing first and second in Japan.

The successful appeal has re-instated the original score and the final dual will take place on the track and not off it.

While McLaren can be expected to be disappointed by not winning the title in the penultimate race and off the track, the sport has indeed suffered. Dennis had precisely the same reaction in Malaysia after the Oct. 17 race as his reaction after the appeal. In each case he said it was a bad day for the sport, adding in Malaysia that it was ''no way to win a championship.''

In fact, either the call was bad for the sport, or the appeal decision was bad for the sport. Not both. The original call was bad for the sport for several reasons:


It came at the instigation of the losing team against the winning team. The stewards, the judges of the race, had not noticed any irregularities with Ferrari's deflectors in two races after scrutinizing the cars.


It came after Ferrari won the race and not before the race, when the team could have changed the deflectors. It was a weapon of last resort.


The punishment was too stiff. In 1976, after James Hunt won the Spanish Grand Prix in a McLaren, the rear of his car was judged 1.8 centimeters (seven tenths of an inch) too wide and he was disqualified. Then the court of appeal reduced the punished to a fine and Hunt's victory was reinstated.

But there is a positive side to last week's controversy. Many critics including Dennis claim the FIA's decision shows that Formula One only cares about the commercial interests of the sport. The controversy, however, can be seen to prove the very opposite: It was not commercially smart to destroy the interest of the last race of the season after the spectacular results of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The stewards in Malaysia, it may be argued, would never have disqualified Ferrari after it was clear that the title was up for grabs in the last race of the season. Another positive development was the statement of Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, that his organization might have made errors itself.

''The court of appeal criticized, I think with some justification, our methods of measurement,'' Mosley said. ''There was also criticism by the court as to the regulation itself. Those two criticisms of the methods of measurement are going to be looked into very carefully.''

The FIA has too often erred on the side of self-righteousness. The fact that the organization had only overturned race stewards' decisions twice in 15 previous occasions over the last quarter century does not mean it is now stooping to commercial needs, but rather shows that it is not trying to justify its decisions at all cost. It is simply proving the necessity of a court of appeal in any legislative system.

No matter what the outcome of the appeal might have been, one side would be disappointed. The 1999 drivers and constructors' trophies will shine less brightly for because of this controversy. But at least Sunday's winner will have seen the season to a close.

Ferrari's Eddie Irvine would not be the most illustrious world champion, as he has inherited two of his four victories. One was handed to him at the German Grand Prix by Mika Salo, his teammate, who was leading the race but slowed down to let Irvine pass him to win.

The other was inherited in Malaysia where Michael Schumacher, also his teammate, let Irvine pass him to win. Irvine has been the most consistent driver in the series, marking points in all but two of 15 races, but he has not been the fastest.

Mika Hakkinen, by comparison, has been very inconsistent, having failed to score any points in five of the races so far. His team, McLaren, has the fastest car, but it has had many breakdowns.

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