The lucky ones

The world council’s decision to spare the two McLaren drivers appears to have been based on a precedent set 12 years ago in Brazil, writes Richard Williams.

Lewis Hamilton is a lucky boy. If he goes on to celebrate the unique achievement of winning the World Championship in his first season in Formula One, putting his name alongside the likes of Fangio, Clark, Lauda and Senna, he will look back and thank the 23 members of the FIA’s world motor sports council for a decision that seems to have been good for Grand Prix racing’s box-office value.

The manner of Hamilton’s arrival this season has galvanised the sport, broadening its appeal at the same time as rekindling the interest of those who had drifted away, bored with the sport’s prevailing cynicism and an unvaried diet of processional races. Through his freshness and aggression, and the fact that he appears to have brought a modern multiculturalism into a hitherto very conservative and exclusive world, he has changed Formula One’s demographic base in a way that has thrilled sponsors looking for new faces to thrust them into new markets. To have disqualified him and his team-mate, Fernando Alonso, from the race for the drivers’ title would have undermined a great deal of that work.

However satisfactory it may be to Hamilton’s fans, the world council’s decision appears to have been based on a precedent set 12 years ago in Brazil when Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard were allowed to keep their points after their cars were found to have been using petrol that contravened the requirement for the use of the same fuel throughout a season. This precedent was itself unwise: if the cars were not conforming to the regulations, then it must have been in order to gain an advantage. And if the cars had an advantage, then the drivers must have had an advantage, too.

The FIA appears to have received evidence suggesting that McLaren benefited from the acquisition of the 780-page “operating manual” for the 2007 Ferrari GP car. Ron Dennis continues to deny that his team benefited, but if they did so then the drivers must also have benefited. So Raikkonen and Massa — and the others whose points totals would have been improved by the removal of Hamilton and Alonso from this season’s results — might be feeling a little rueful. Points, as well as championships, carry big money in Formula One.

McLaren’s $100m (£50m) fine will sound a lot to the outside world, but Dennis will not be asking for time to pay. Formula One is an obscenely rich sport in which a constant bleating about the need to save money is constantly undercut by the habitual use of private jets, the holidays in vast ocean-going yachts, and the absurd levels to which the technology has been driven. McLaren are among the sport’s biggest earners and biggest spenders, and the fine will make no difference to their activities. They may even find that their existing sponsors are quietly pleased about the extra exposure.

It should, however, make a difference to their modus operandi. Dennis is proud of the company’s “matrix” management, which replaced the conventional pyramid system of managerial responsibilities. But there must have been something wrong with the structure if the illegalities seemingly instigated by Mike Coughlan, a senior figure on the technical side, could take place without the knowledge of the top man. Dennis should be asking himself if his managerial instincts are as sharp as they once were. At 60, he is a member of a generation of leading Formula One figures who are having great difficulty persuading themselves to take a well cushioned retirement. His evident discomfiture over the Stepneygate affair, in which his cherished integrity has been called into question, may provide the signal for his exit.

Before that, however, he has been given the opportunity to supervise the remainder of the battle between his two drivers for the only title that really counts. He may be $100m poorer but he, too, can count himself lucky.

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007 * * * MOSLEY’S TAKE

Max Mosley, the FIA president, said that Lewis Hamilton and his McLaren team-mate Fernando Alonso should have been thrown out of the Formula One World Championship. But he had been in the minority at the meeting of the FIA’s world motor sport council, which fined the British team $100m (£50m) and took away their constructors’ points.

Speaking at the Belgian Grand Prix, Mosley said he would have supported the loss of points for both men “on the grounds there is a suspicion that they had an advantage that they should not have had”. Only the immunity he had granted the McLaren drivers in return for information prevented them being thrown out of the drivers’ championship after the team were found guilty of using Ferrari data.

Mosley also said that, should Hamilton or Alonso win the title, a question mark would hang over the success. He felt that Hamilton, whose lead over Alonso was cut to two points after the Belgian GP, would not take as much satisfaction should he win the title. “I think he will probably feel more comfortable if he wins a subsequent championship, which I am sure he will, without any of these question marks,” said the FIA president.

McLaren appear unlikely to appeal despite Ron Dennis believing his team have suffered an injustice. “If we do not appeal this, it will be because we want closure,” said the team principal.

Jean Todt, the Ferrari team principal, revealed that Raikkonen had testified that McLaren eavesdropped on Ferrari’s team radio throughout his time there. “I have to admit that we listen to certain car radios,” Todt said. “Kimi testified that it was a common practice in his former team from 2002 to 2006.”

Alan Henry © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2007