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Bill Oursler on the Rear Wheel Skid of the FIA

One has to wonder sometimes about the Federation International de L’Automobile. Earlier this year there was the crisis over the sexual habits of its president Max Mosley, now there is another following the decision to take away Lewis Hamilton’s victory at the Belgium Grand Prix. According to the FIA stewards, Hamilton was penalized 25 seconds for improving his position late in the race by short cutting a chicane in a fight for the lead with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen.

The problem is that the video tape simply doesn’t support that judgment, the tape clearly showing that Hamilton did in fact drop back to his original position behind Raikkonen, if ever so briefly. Nevertheless, the FIA officials apparently saw it, or interpreted it differently, those lost 25 seconds costing the McLaren driver his fifth win of 2008, and handing the triumph to Raikkonen’s Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa. That judgment put Massa two points closer to Hamilton in the title chase, rather than Hamilton gaining those two points himself over his opposition. Moreover, it strengthened Ferrari’s hold on the constructors’ championship, rather than weakening it.

“Controversial” would be a polite way of describing the reaction to the decision, however, whether or not it changes the outcome of the World Championship is not as important as the possible long term effects on Formula One in particular, and the sport as a whole. Mosley’s springtime escapades did little to help the good humor of those who pay hundreds of millions of dollars to participate in F-1 each year. Now, the appearance that Mosley’s underlings may have pulled off a robbery at Hamilton’s and McLaren’s expense in Belgium seems only to have re-enforced the notion that at best the FIA is out of control, and at worst out of touch with reality. Either way, those writing the checks are faced with the fact that increasingly they are investing in an arena that is giving them little but negative returns, rather than the positive image boost which is clear is the rational that led them to F-1 in the first place.

From the bigger picture viewpoint it is the latter issue which might not simply level the currently uneven playing field between the sports car racing universe and F-1, but which ultimately, and more importantly could well promote sports cars, both prototypes and their GT counterparts to the top of the rung of the industry, destroying the highly successful efforts of the last three decades by Bernie Ecclestone to make and keep Formula One as the premier form of racing around the globe.

Clearly, since the golden age of sports car competition during the late 1960’s and the first years of the 1970’s, the seemly endless battles over the individual agendas of its leaders have done little to help lift the community out of its second tier position. Just as clearly though are the machinations of Ecclestone and Mosley to restrict sports cars to the confines of a farm as far away as possible from the center court stage on which F-1 plays. Whenever the sports car set has gained ground as it did in the latter part of the 1980’s, Messrs. Ecclestone and Mosley have moved to knock it back.

Evidence of the effect of those efforts can be seen in the cancellation of the FIA’s World Sports Car series in the early 1990’s because, according to the FIA, there was too little interest in it. For many, while conceding there was more than a little truth to be found in that contention, there was also the undisputable fact that the low level of interest was directly attributable to the high cost of the 3.5-liter sports car prototype formula imposed on the community by Ecclestone and Mosley.

For whatever the reasons, Formula One in the early years of the 21st century has become ever increasingly complex and unfathomable with regulations changing at a moment’s notice, and rules enforcement appearing rooted far more in whim than anything else. In the past, because of its vast audience the check writers were forced to simply put up with those whims and machinations because there were no alternatives. Today there are. Not only that, but those alternatives are ever more free of FIA control, which by extension means beyond the reach of Ecclestone and Mosley.

In previous times those in charge of the sports car world bowed to the wishes of the FIA and its managers; something not true today. The extreme example of this new attitude can be found here in North America where the France family owned Grand American Road Racing Association opted out of the FIA universe and wrote its own regulations for its Rolex Sports Car Series, caring little whether anyone else, the FIA included liked them or not. Others have been slightly less radical, including the L’Automobile Club du L’Ouest, which has tried to co-ordinate its scriptures, at least in terms of its production car divisions with those of the world governing body. Yet, Le Mans, its Euro- centric Le Mans Series, and the American Le Mans Series established here by Don Panoz using the ACO’s technical regulations have maintained a near total independence in terms of goals and the best ways to each those goals.

That independence has led to highly sophisticated, high performance vehicles that, as has been the case with F-1, allow major manufacturers to demonstrate and promote themselves and their technological capabilities to the maximum before their customer base. In short, from a commercial viewpoint, sports cars have become an increasingly attractive tool to help achieve sales goals.

Incorporated within this new found attractiveness is the fact that the technology exploration has been green, promotion new renewable fuels and new alternatives to the traditional gasoline powered internal combustion powerplants of the past. Indeed, who would have thought ten years ago that Le Mans and the ALMS would see the top prototypes dominated by diesels, whose new natural gas based fuels are the first step to a new energy era that will soon include hybrids, and possibly within the near future, hydrogen cells. Indeed, the ALMS’ upcoming Petit Le Mans event will feature its “Green Challenge” which will spotlight the use of bio-based ethanol fuels.

Like anything else, predicting the future is problematical at best, and there are many unresolved issues within the sports car universe that could sidetrack any rise in its stature. Yet, with all the troubles facing Formula One, most especially its image on and off the track, and with the sports car folks appearing to have a new found focus that relates to the real world concerns of nearly everyone, while at the same time keeping an extremely attractive performance package, we may well see a dramatic shift back to a time when sports car were a first cabin affair.

Bill Oursler
                                                              September 2008


Eventually the bills come due. America and the rest of the world have found that out recently in the current financial crisis that has the potential to bring the global economy down in a crash that will make the Great Depression of the 1920’s seem puny. Despite this example staring it in the face, the Federation International de L’Automobile continues to defy logic in its arrogance that it is immune from bill paying. Indeed, one has to wonder whether or not the FIA is aware that there are such things as bills. At the Italian Grand Prix FIA President Max Mosley had what the English call “a go” at the British press, presumably for that institution’s criticism of the way the FIA under his leadership is being run.

Unfortunately for Mosley, criticism is a fundamental democratic right. And, while the media itself can be criticized for how it covers the news, in the case of Mosley and the FIA, there would appear to be every justification for its attitude towards the governing body and its all to often bizarre way it oversees its motorsport responsibilities, the latest example of which was the hearing in which McLaren driver Lewis Hamilton’s appeal of the FIA actions stripping him of his victory in the Belgium Grand Prix was turned down.

Although most right thinking folk who have seen the tapes of the Belgium incident fully believe that Hamilton did comply with the FIA’s scriptures about not improving one’s position through cutting chicanes, it was the logic used by the appeals court that itself defied logic. Instead of ruling on the merits, the court refused to overturn the time penalty handed down by the stewards that moved him from first to second because the court said that it was the equivalent of a “drive through penalty” which by FIA regulations is not reviewable. In short, the court’s rational was that Hamilton and McLaren had no right to make the appeal in the first place. On the face of it, one can’t argue with the decision – except for one small pesky detail: if that is in fact how the rules read, then why in heaven’s name did the FIA grant him an appeals hearing in the first place?

In 2004, U.S. Democratic Presidential candidate John Kerry lost the election in part because of his “flip flop on the Iraq War,” the Republicans pointing to Kerry’s confused stance of “I was for it before I was against,” as an example of the kind of leadership the country shouldn’t accept. Regardless of one’s real world political passions, the logic behind this four-year-old bit of theatrics applies in the case of Hamilton’s hearing, i.e.: “We’ll let him appeal before telling him that he can’t appeal.”

Given that, one has to ask what kind of message is the FIA sending?  Is it one of mere incompetence, or is it one with an agenda attached?  Last year, at Brazil the two cars in that finished immediately in front of Hamilton, didn’t pass post race technical inspection because of the temperature of the fuel they had on board. In most cases, those cars would have, and should have been disqualified. Instead the FIA said it had no way to enforce the regulation, and let it go. If you know you can’t enforce a rule, then why is it on the books?

But, then this is world of the FIA, and in the Land of Oz anything seemingly is possible. Consider for a moment the great McLaren-Ferrari spy scandal of 2007 in which to this day, if one reads the World Council’s decision there is no direct proof that McLaren did modify its cars using information pilfered from Ferrari. Rather there is only supposition, which is most courts is not enough for conviction. Then again, this is the Land of Oz.  Over last winter, it was revealed that a McLaren engineer hired by Renault brought with him technical information from his former employer. That information somehow found its way into the Renault data base. Was any action taken against Renault? No, Renault was let off the hook because the FIA said that there was no proof that it had been incorporated into Renault’s design structure.

Now, I’m not one to judge, but the words “double standard” do come to mind in this situation. Then there is the matter of Mosley’s own sexual escapades of this past spring, which he dismissed as “a private” matter (and, which to be fair was so judged by a court which awarded him damages against the British tabloid that published the story). Private or not, Mosley’s actions and judgment clearly brought the sport into “disrepute, something the FIA has rules against doing.  However, since it was Mosley, noting happened. But, then why am I not surprised, after all it is the Land of Oz.

There are obvious comparisons here. However they are so obvious they need not be made. Yet, as I said when this matter first arose, this blog is devoted sports cars, a segment of motorsport in which the FIA has lost much of its control. What I suggested then remains true now; namely that those who write the checks that support Formula One may decide to have a rethink about whether or not to continue that support given the way the FIA’s mode of meeting its responsibilities in governing the sport. When I wrote on this subject I raised the possibility that there could be benefits to be found in this mess for the sports car side of the house, particularly since the prototype arena is more and more becoming a hothouse for the technologies automotive manufacturers will need to be the challenges of a world short on energy and seeking a greener future.

Times have changed since I produced that first column. Now we’re in a financial crunch, and traditionally when that occurs, everyone tends to close their wallets and pocketbooks. Activities such as motorsport are particularly vulnerable to this and the FIA’s arrogance and its belief in its own self importance most certainly could cause trouble for Formula One. More importantly it could also cause trouble for the whole of international motorsport, for why should people spend money with us if we can keep our own house in order? And, make no mistake to the outside world, the one where the financial; resources are to be found, we in motorsport live in a single house. One doesn’t know in these uncertain times what will happen. But, one can clearly see that nothing good is going to come from a governing body seemingly operates under the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Bill Oursler

October 2008

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