Monday, October 29, 2007

Thank God It's Over... Or is It?

So the F1 season is over on the track, but not yet decided. Appropriate really, given the way the season has, literally and figuratively, unravelled. It should not really surprise anyone that McLaren has chosen to appeal the Stewards’ decision in the final race of the season and much though I wish I could deride the team for this, I really can’t find any logical reason to do so.

To recap – I love doing this – it all started in fairytale fashion for Raikkonen. Pole and victory in the first race was really the stuff that dreams were made of for him. Hamilton though, caught the eye as a driver for the future, or so at least, one thought, given the presence of double World Champion Alonso in the same team. The race while uneventful, had huge ramifications off the track.

This was the race when McLaren showed it’s possession of confidential Ferrari data when the team reported the movable floor device on the scarlet cars. It led to a modification and clarification of the rules and Ferrari and a number of teams had to change their floor design. While this is not a generally well-known fact (thanks to the amazingly biased British media) McLaren too was one of the teams that modified the floor design on the cars.

Without wasting too much time on race results, it suffices to say that McLaren and Hamilton were on the ascendant after Australia while Kimi suffered his usual luck with technical glitches and retirement. He as well as Alonso though, started facing something that neither was used to viz, team-mates who were outpacing them! Massa overtook Kimi in the standings and Alonso found himself trailing Hamilton. That of course was where the similarity ended as Alonso promptly threw all his toys out of the pram while Kimi chose to get along with racing. Not, mind you, that he is ever the most expressive, but surely the contrast is worth noting.

Ferrari continued to be dogged with reliability issues and also lacked speed on certain circuits (Monaco and Canada spring to mind as does Indianapolis) and both the team and their drivers slipped off the pace in the Championship tables but something else overshadowed all of this – Stepneygate of course. The spy scandal seems simple enough for all those that care to see it without wearing rose-tinted glasses.

McLaren as a team was in possession of confidential Ferrari data which they used to garner an unfair advantage. Let’s face it. Set-ups and fuel levels combined with pit-stop schedules are just about as good as information can get when you’re racing each other. McLaren therefore benefited as the team had not just these pieces of information, but also design details as well detailed information regarding the weight distribution of the cars.

This was where the FIA began shooting itself in both feet with a shotgun. The initial decision that held McLaren guilty of unsporting conduct but let the team off for “lack of sufficient evidence”, was farcical to say the very least. After all, how can the team be guilty if there is no evidence? And in the face of the evidence, how can there not be sufficient evidence to penalise the team when there is sufficient evidence to pronounce the team guilty?

Then of course, things got even worse. Mad Max shot his mouth off in the Press and went to the Court of Appeals which quite rightly held McLaren guilty and imposed a massive fine and also disqualified the team from the Constructors’ Championship. Now, McLaren’s decision to not appeal this vindicated the decision and showed that the team was only too aware of its guilt, but here too, the FIA goofed up. They decided to let the McLaren drivers retain their points saying that they could not be punished for the team’s crimes. This just increased the farcical nature of the judgment.

Can anyone really say after the e-mail transcripts that Alonso was not aware of the truth?
Can anyone say that Alonso or Hamilton turned in evidence thereby getting under the ambit of that exemption that the FIA promised the team members that did so?
Can anyone say that the team did not derive any advantage on the track from the knowledge that they had?

The answer to all these is an obvious no, so it’s quite clear that the FIA and Formula1 clearly had the commercial side of things in mind when reaching this decision. After all, the audience does not really care too much about the Constructors’ Championship. Most watch F1 for the Drivers’ Championship and this was the closest race in decades. So, the show went on and finished so memorably in Brazil of course. All done? Not quite…

McLaren has chosen to appeal the stewards’ decision to not strip the Williams and BMW drivers of their points. While this may seem like a childish and churlish response to Kimi winning what many see as a deserved Championship, one needs to look at this from the other perspective also. After all, what if this had been the first race of the season or the fifth for that matter; essentially any but the last. Would people still be accusing McLaren of being sore losers? I think not.

Also, once again, are the FIA and Formula1 administration just brushing things under the carpet to just bring an already chaotic and controversy-marred season to an end? How can the Stewards not have evidence in this matter? It is the simple matter of measuring temperatures! Surely in a sport as highly technologically advanced as Formula1 there can’t be too much doubt about temperatures! There are clear rules governing this aspect of the sport and like it or not, if a team breaks those rules, there needs to be a punishment.

Saying that a team should not be punished or should not appeal the lack of punishment in the last race is like giving the entire field a license to cheat in the last race of the season. Surely an avoidable scenario, this. The tragedy of the entire affair is that these drivers would very likely have finished ahead of Hamilton regardless and the result would still have been Kimi winning what I too regard as a deserved title, but that does not, sadly, change the facts.

My opinion? Well, the FIA would do well to take actions similar to the ones when meting out punishment to the McLaren team. Penalise the team the positions and let the drivers retain their places. It matches the amazing let-off the McLaren drivers had and also lets the season standing stay intact. Still, I regard this as a sad state of affairs in the sport. How can a team be guilty of benefiting from unfair methods and their drivers be let-off? A bad precedent to set for future seasons, but the FIA has only itself to blame for this situation today.

It’s the fans who lose in this, once again. F1 has lost a lot of credibility in this season. While the close race for the WDC kept the viewers tuned in despite the retirement of F1’s greatest driver ever, the off-track shenanigans have stunk to the high Heavens and barring another close season, F1 seems destined to lose fans whichever way the November 15th hearing goes.

The appeal can be summed up in Heidfeld’s latest quote, “We were not illegal, because we were not punished”, he has said. Quite. Just like the McLaren drivers then. “We were not illegal because we were not punished. Out cars may have been illegal (since they were punished) but hey, what do the cars have to do with our racing?” Ironic…

A last word on Alonso. One can’t help but feel that while he deserves a lot of the vilification he has had to endure, a lot of it has been undue. After all, he has indeed been the driving force behind the McLaren being a fast car this season and his contribution to Lewis’ success can also not be overlooked. Just look at what happened to Lewis when Alonso stopped sharing his set-up data! Out went the toys from the Lewis pram then… And remember too, that while signing him up, Dennis could scarcely have told him that he would be in the same team as a British driver who would be favoured by the team. Forget the British media and look back to Dennis’ statement about how “we were not racing Kimi. Our race was with Alonso”, and ask yourself if you would like being in a team that was literally fighting against you.

Alonso and Ron really do deserve each other in that sense. Both are childish and churlish and love throwing their toys out of the pram and wailing to the world about perceived atrocities against them…

The man who shone the most – apart from Kimi – this season? Undoubtedly Felipe Massa. Barring some reliability issues, he too would surely have been in the mix come Sao Paolo and one should not overlook the fact that for a significant portion of this season, he was ahead of Kimi in the standings. Surely a driver to look out for in 2008…

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