Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, March 31, 1995
Complicated Fuel 'Fingerprint' Is a Clue to Formula One Racing's Dispute
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - If Formula One racing has become increasingly predictable - Michael Schumacher wins, or Michael Schumacher is disqualified - what remains arcane are the rules of the International Automobile Federation.
There is the rule about a driver's passing another during the warm-up lap, or the one about the plank of wood on the bottom of the car being shaved down to an illegal thinness. And the one about racing fuel that doesn't match its "fingerprint."
For the winner and runner- up in the season-opening Brazil Grand Prix, this is the rule that got them disqualified. And it involved Schumacher, who drives for the Benetton-Renault team, plus David Coulthard, who drives for the Williams- Renault team.
But how does gasoline get a "fingerprint," what do the fuel regulations mean, and why are they there?
"We've got a rule," said Max Mosley, the president of automobile federation, "that they use pump petrol. The problem is, what is pump petrol? Because it has 200 to 300 components. And they vary from time to time."
Mosley said it took a week or two to analyze a fuel sample to determine its chemical makeup. This time lag, in the past, left open the possibility of overturning the results of a race several weeks after it had been run.
"It was at the suggestion of the then chairman of Elf, Alain Guillon, that we brought in a new idea," Mosley said, referring to the French company that supplies fuel for many of the Grand Prix teams.
The fuel companies, Mosley said, were to be told "to submit an example of the fuel they intend to use before the season begins. Then do all the analyses, satisfy ourselves that it's completely legal. We then take from it a characteristic print, using gas chromatography."
Chromatography is a method used by chemists to separate often-complex mixtures. Gas- liquid chromatography vaporizes solid and liquid samples of the fuels and introduces them to sensitive detectors by which minute amounts of material can be analyzed. The automobile federation calls the result a "fingerprint" of the fuel's molecular structure.
Mosley, 54, a former Formula Two driver and a lawyer, said: "When the fuel is in the car we take a sample from the car, run it through the gas chromatograph, and if the two prints are the same, we know the fuel in the car is the same as the fuel originally submitted. We therefore know it is legal. And we can do that, when it is working smoothly, within 45 minutes."
If the fingerprint does not match, however, then the team has already broken a rule. This is the situation in which the Benetton and Williams teams, both of which have filed appeals, first found themselves, and for which they were fined $30,000.
The two drivers were disqualified when the same mismatched fingerprints showed up in tests after the race in Brazil. And if, during further tests now being carried out, the fuel samples still do not match, that, too, will be a violation of the automobile federation's rules.
"All approved fuels are legal," Mosley said. "Not all unapproved fuels are illegal. But it is nevertheless an offense to run an unapproved fuel."
And if the fuel is legal, even though the fingerprints do not match?
"It would be open to the court of appeal to say, should they so decide, that the penalty was excessive," said Mosley, referring to the hearing to be held in Paris on April 13. "They can do anything. They have complete liberty. But in the usual traditions of motor racing, the innocent mistake that takes you outside the regulations always results in you being excluded."
According to the regulations, new fuels may be submitted throughout the season for testing, approval and fingerprinting - or rejected. But since it takes a couple of weeks to do the master fingerprint, samples must be submitted well in advance of a race.
Elf provides fuel for seven Formula One teams and, Mosley said, probably would have different fuels for teams with eight-cylinder engines than for those with 10-cylinder engines. And they might have different fuels for qualifying and practice as well.
"As it turned out, they only had the one fuel there," Mosley said of the Benetton and Williams teams. "But there is no danger of a gross injustice, because if by any chance the equipment was faulty or something like that has happened, you could reinstate them."
At the track, the automobile federation asks the fuel companies to provide samples of all the fuels for the fingerprint test, Mosley said, "so there might be fuel A, B, C and D. So we take a sample and we say which one is that? And they say it's C. So we take the printout of the fingerprint of C and we compare them."
They match, or they don't.
In Brazil, the McLaren team's Mobil fuel, and the Ferrari team's Agip gasoline, matched to the last detail, said Mosley, "which gave us some confidence."
In the case of the Elf fuel, he said, "The complaint, and I've only been told this unofficially, I've only heard it in conversation so far, but I understand that the density is different. There was a substance in the fuel taken from the car that was not present in the sample."
Elf has said that a fuel may change up to 30 percent of its characteristics after being heated in the tank of the car. But Mosley said the tests took this into account, and that it did not provide a reason for a new substance being introduced.
Benetton has refused to comment on the matter, but Williams, in a statement, raised three possibilities: Elf sent an incorrect batch of fuel to Brazil; the automobile federation's testing equipment malfunctioned, or the equipment was incorrectly operated.
Elf, which has provided fuel to Formula One teams for 28 years without ever before being sanctioned, maintains that it has strictly abided by the rules. It also complains that none of the test results were given to either the teams or to Elf to inspect and that it could not have its own experts take part in the testing, even though it had proposed to the federation at the end of 1994 that an independent group of experts analyze the fuel.
"What do they mean by a fingerprint?" asked Tom Saunders, the spokesman for Elf.
"If you do a fingerprint on a human it will be the same match time after time. But when you refine crude oil, much will depend on where the oil comes from," he said, whether from Saudi Arabia, the North Sea or elsewhere.
"It's impossible to find two samples that are exactly the same," he said. "There are between 280 and 330 different molecules in a sample of fuel. No test will reveal two samples of fuel to be the same."
Speaking of the Ferrari and McLaren samples that Mosley said had matched, Saunders said, "I'd like to know what they mean by matched. We would like to be able to see the tests."
Mosley, asked about the possibility that the testing equipment was faulty, since this was its first use at a Grand Prix, said of the technicians, "When they found that the Williams and the Benetton didn't check out, nobody believed it. So they had to check and check and re-check. And they were worried about all the points that are now being raised by Elf."
It was not until they had made several tests, he said, that they had enough confidence in the results to report them to federation officials.
Everyone concerned - the automobile federation, Elf, the teams and drivers - seem to have come to the same basic conclusion: No one was cheating or trying to gain an advantage.
So why the disqualification?
"The whole system would collapse if there isn't a sanction," Mosley said.
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