This coming Thursday the FIA Court of Appeal will hear McLaren’s case against the result of the Brazilian Grand Prix. Ron Dennis and his legal team will struggle to win the courtroom clash, but even if they do it is almost certain that Kimi Raikkonen will remain 2007 World Drivers Champion.
As the Brazilian Grand Prix developed it became inevitable that Ferrari was going to win the race. The real interest surrounded Lewis Hamilton and his battle to recover from the gearbox gremlins that pushed him down to eighteenth. Hamilton had to finish fifth by the end of the race to secure his first World Championship.
Unfortunately for British sports fans everywhere he didn’t make it in time. There is some suggestion his three stop strategy restricted his progress through the field, but in the end Hamilton simply wasn’t quick enough to make it into the top five. He was stuck in seventh.
However, the three cars that finished directly ahead of Hamilton made things very interesting after the race.
The FIA technical delegate noted that fuel samples taken from Williams and BMW during the Grand Prix were too cold, and reported his findings to the FIA stewards.
The fuel onboard a Formula One car must be within ten degrees (centigrade) of the ambient temperature. This rule is designed to prevent teams from freezing or cooling their fuel which would provide an unfair performance advantage. Fuel can be made denser by making it colder, which would enable teams to fit more of it into the fuel tank and more of it through the engine under power.
The ambient temperature at Interlagos was 37 degrees which meant the fuel could be no colder than 27. Unfortunately for BMW and Williams they produced readings between 23 and 25 degrees, four below the allowed limit.
The teams had been caught out by the especially hot weather in Brazil but that is no excuse for presenting a car outside the regulations.
However, quite surprisingly, the race stewards did not hand down any punishment.
The stewards ruled there was confusion about the actual ambient temperature, and also about how the fuel was measured. Their official statement read “there must be sufficient doubt as to both the temperature of the fuel actually ‘on board the car’ and also as to the true ambient temperature as to render it inappropriate to impose a penalty.”
McLaren instantly appealed the steward’s decision and claimed the confusion was not justified. The British team argued that fuel had been measured correctly and that ambient temperature at Interlagos was clearly defined. As far as McLaren were concerned, there was no “sufficient doubt” at all.
The rule in question is Article 6.5.5 of the Formula One Technical Regulations. The wording of this particular section is crucial to the outcome of McLaren’s appeal because it states “No fuel on board the car may be more than ten degrees centigrade below ambient temperature.”
This wording will be a central part of the case because the fuel samples were not taken from the car, but from the fuel rig. The fuel may very well have been cold but according to the rulebook it was not measured from the right place. Williams believe they can prove the fuel in the car would have been at the right temperature and will be submitting this explanation to the FIA.
The second problem with the wording is that it does not specify who declares the ‘ambient temperature’. The common understanding is that Formula One Management provides this information via the official timing screens but this is not stated explicitly within the regulations. The FIA have an arrangement with a separate company to provide meteorological services and their readings were far different. Interestingly, Bridgestone recorded a ‘track temperature’ that was 14 degrees cooler than the one displayed on the official timing screens in Brazil, suggesting FOM’s weather calibration was significantly inaccurate. This ambiguity prevented the stewards from disqualifying Williams and BMW.
McLaren disputed both of these points. They claim to have minutes from FIA meetings that specifically state that fuel temperature samples will always be taken from the fuel rig, and that FOM is the ultimate source of weather information.
However, these meetings do not constitute the regulations and might not count for anything on Thursday. The court will have to decide if the FIA documents that McLaren present are enough to warrant a penalty against BMW and Williams.
Kimi Raikkonen shouldn’t worry though, because the World Championship trophy is safely on his mantelpiece. Even if McLaren win their appeal it almost certain the race result will not be altered.
Should it be found that BMW and Williams broke the rules in Brazil there are a range of penalties available to the FIA that do not involve disqualification from the event.
At the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1995, Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard were investigated after the race for fuel irregularities. In that instance both drivers were allowed to keep their points whilst the teams (Benetton and Williams) were penalised theirs.
This punishment will likely be handed out again if McLaren’s appeal is upheld.
It is also possible that a full disqualification may still not be enough to give Hamilton the world title. Article 168 of the International Sporting Code says that if someone is disqualified the stewards “shall decide whether the next competitor should be moved up in the classification”. The stewards could therefore remove Rosberg, Kubica and Heidfeld from the race without promoting Hamilton into fourth.
This makes the odds of Lewis becoming champion on Thursday extremely slim. FIA President, Max Mosley, backed this up by saying “For us the World Championship is over. The result is what it is”.
With that in mind you can question why McLaren lodged an appeal that has done nothing but damage the sport. They are right to disagree with “sufficient doubt” in the regulations, but they might have been able to challenge the FIA through different channels.
Perhaps McLaren could have followed the example they set after the Australian Grand Prix when they believed Ferrari had broken the rules. Rather than protest the result they clarified the regulations with the FIA in time for the next race.
Ferrari started the season with a moving floor that provided them with an unfair aerodynamic advantage. McLaren brought this to the attention of the FIA before the Australian Grand Prix by asking if they could fit such a device on their own car. The FIA responded after the Albert Park event by saying McLaren’s proposal was illegal, and that a new test would be introduced to ensure the regulations were more strictly enforced.
This meant Ferrari had to change their cars before round two of the season.
McLaren could have protested the result of the Australian Grand Prix, but decided against doing so “in the interest of motor sport”.
They have not adopted that same mentality after Brazil.
McLaren have every right to question the result if they feel it is not correct and the FIA Court of Appeal exists for that very purpose. In this instance there is plenty of confusion over the rules and McLaren are right to challenge them. Ron Dennis and his men have come under enormous scrutiny this year so it is only fair the rules are evenly applied.
However, they might have been able to do this without putting the World Championship in doubt. The whole affair has slightly tarnished the end of a great season and it would tarnish it even more if the appeal was successful.
McLaren said themselves they don’t want to win the World Championship in a courtroom, so it would be a shame if that’s what they end up doing.