Too many loose ends

The 2007 season has been memorable with the advent of the British rookie Lewis Hamilton. It has also been a season of controversies and upheavals. Alan Henry takes a critical look at the season gone by.

Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos international airport looked more like a Formula One paddock on October 23 as the battle-weary race personnel headed for home after a gruelling 17-race campaign. It has been a season to remember, with the emergence of Lewis Hamilton, yet it was the least satisfactory finale in terms of the number of loose ends left trailing in the British rookie’s wake.

Off track the season was dominated by the spying controversy over the 780-page Ferrari technical dossier that was passed to the McLaren chief designer, Mike Coughlan. This led to McLaren losing their constructors’ points and being fined £50m. The repercussions rumble on. And after Kimi Raikkonen’s win in Brazil, McLaren have appealed against the stewards’ decision not to penalise BMW Sauber and Williams for breaching fuel regulations, an appeal which if upheld with disqualification would hand the drivers’ title to Hamilton.

McLaren’s bruised reputation

Opinion in the paddock is divided. Some believe the British team knew well what they were doing in acquiring the Ferrari data, others accept the explanation that the existence of the controversial documents was known only to a handful of individuals, most of whom might have been slow off the mark in understanding their full significance. What is indisputable is that McLaren’s boast that it can manage driver relations better than almost everybody else now lies in ruins. The collapse of their relationship with Fernando Alonso, coming after the unravelling of the Raikkonen-Juan Pablo Montoya partnership last year, illustrates how much they need to learn when it comes to dealing with their men behind the wheel.

Alonso’s future

It seems almost inconceivable that Alonso can remain with McLaren next season even though he has just completed the first year of a two-year contract with an additional one-year option. His acrimonious and non-communicative relationship with Ron Dennis, the McLaren chairman, makes their future look bleak. Will he take a sabbatical in 2008? Will he be swapped for Heikki Kovalainen at Renault? Or might he be sued by McLaren for breach of contract because of disloyalty? Any of those options is a possibility.

Lawsuits against Coughlan and Stepney

Ferrari have made it clear they will continue to press civil actions against Coughlan, who has been suspended from his role as McLaren’s chief designer, and against their own former senior engineer Nigel Stepney, who leaked the Ferrari documentation to his McLaren associate in the first place. There are no indications of how long such actions will take but there must be some lingering concern that they will produce further uncomfortable revelations.

Fuel temperatures

McLaren have appealed to the governing body, the FIA, after BMW Sauber and Williams were not punished by the Interlagos stewards for breaking the regulations governing the temperature of fuel at the Brazilian Grand Prix on October 21. Nico Rosberg’s Williams and Robert Kubica’s and Nick Heidfeld’s BMWs — which finished ahead of Hamilton in fourth, fifth and sixth places respectively — were found to be running on fuel more than the permitted 10 degrees Celsius below the ambient air temperature. Uncertainty over the accuracy of the readings prompted the stewards to take no action. Should McLaren’s appeal succeed, the offending drivers might be stripped of their points, promoting Hamilton to fourth in the race and giving him enough points to take the title.

Validation of 2008 McLaren

There may be further stress for McLaren in the coming months because the FIA intends to monitor the development of next year’s car to satisfy itself there is nothing in its concept that could be traced back to Ferrari. How this process will be initiated, what it will involve and how long it will go on remains to be seen.

Always read the small print

The row over fuel temperatures has drawn attention to Formula One’s detailed rule book. At more than 15,000 words it has the potential to cause further controversy in 2008, as these abstruse regulations show . . .

Art 3.17.5: The uppermost aerofoil element lying behind the rear wheel centre line may deflect no more than 5mm horizontally.

Translation: Designers would like wings with a deep profile at corners, for downforce, and a shallow profile down straights, for reduced drag — which flexible material could achieve. But wing failures cause huge crashes.

Art 5.8.1: Ignition is only permitted by means of a single ignition coil and single spark plug cylinder. The use of plasma, laser or other high-frequency techniques is forbidden.

Translation: Keeping it simple, and so both preventing one team developing technology which gives them too big a performance advantage, and — theoretically — keeping costs down, has become the FIA’s guiding principle.

Art 5.13.1: The following materials may not be used in the engine (d) beryllium, iridium or rhenium.

Translation: Beryllium is an elastic, if carcinogenic, material briefly used by Mercedes in the manufacturing of pistons to effectively deliver more power. Not any more. Ferrari kicked up a fuss.

Art 8.1.3: All electronic units containing a programmable device, and which are intended for use at an event, must be presented to the FIA before each event in order that they can be identified.

Translation: Of the changes that will come into force next season, the most far-reaching is the introduction of a standard electronic control unit (ECU) on all engines — which, among other things, will effectively remove traction control from the driver’s toolkit.

Art 9.1: No transmission system may permit more than two wheels to be driven.

Translation: Four-wheel drive might be OK for your urban tractor but not in F1 after Williams, experimenting with a six-wheel car, began to unlock mighty performance gains.

Art 19.3 and 19.4.1: Fuel properties and composition.

Translation: Made increasingly specific after Renault began using a remarkably potent fuel developed by BMW in 1983, containing 80% toluene — poisonous, expensive but incredibly powerful. In effect, rocket fuel.