To me this seems an unacceptably long amount of time to wait for such an important decision. Howls of criticism have been hurled at McLaren for choosing to appeal, but I think the real villains here are the FIA and stewards for taking so long.
Appeals against the results of races are nothing new. The most celebrated such case concerned the Ferraris of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher in the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix. Initially disqualified (making McLaren’s Mika Hakkinen world champion) they were later reinstated, and the championship was decided at the subsequent Japanese Grand Prix.
On that occasion the FIA mobilised itself quickly enough to hear the appeal in the two-week gap between the two races. This year the appeal against the finishing positions of the Williams and BMW cars in the Brazilian race will take place 25 days after the chequered flag fell.
Of course the court’s first priority is to arrive at the correct verdict. But there is no reason to believe the matter is being delayed to ensure the accuracy of the verdict by waiting for all the evidence to come to light. It seems the extent of the evidence is already available.
The court of appeal was originally scheduled to meet next week to hear the case between Williams and Prodrive over the use of customer cars (which is also pressing and due a resolution). Why can the Brazilian GP enquiry not be heard in this now-vacant slot?
Many argue that it would be injurious to the reputation of Formula 1 for the championship to be decided in a court room. I certainly agree with that point of view. But it is just as bad that there will be such a long wait to see the matter resolved.
Are McLaren right to appeal?
It’s easy to see things that way especially at the end of another season scarred by controversy. But McLaren aren’t doing anything wrong.
The rules are clear and it seems that two teams broke them. The reaction of the Brazilian Grand Prix stewards to dismiss the case on the grounds of insufficient evidence might seem to some an attempt to dodge the issue on a technicality.
But this is not like accidentally using an extra set of wet weather tyres in non-qualifying practice – four cars might have gained a performance advantage by using fuel that was several degrees cooler than their rivals’ throughout a race. Whether that statement is true or false I cannot say – but it behoves the FIA to make sure.
McLaren has said that, “it does not question the integrity of either the BMW or Williams teams,” suggesting it feels the discrepancy was simply a mistake and not an attempt to gain a performance advantage.
How can McLaren appeal?
Writing in the Autosport.com journal Thomas O’Keefe argued that McLaren’s right to appeal might be rejected on various technicalities.
However the admission of the case to the appeal court would seem to set those issues aside. At any rate, denying McLaren the right to appeal against a decision that might have cost one of their drivers the world championship might not reflect well on the sport.
How will McLaren appeal?
On the face of it the smart money is against McLaren winning the appeal. But this season has been anything but predictable, and McLaren might be able to use their own expertise to transform what looks like a lost cause into a very difficult decision for the appeal court.
Whatever conspiracy theory nonsense has been devised about the FIA favouring Lewis Hamilton, there is no way the sport’s governing body will want to change the identity of the champion after the final race. It would be unprecedented and potentially even worse for F1’s reputation than the ‘spying’ scandal.
But this is not an appeal against Raikkonen’s championship victory. The question before the court is whether four cars (three of which finished in front of Hamilton’s) broke the FIA Technical Regulations article 6.5.4:
No fuel on board the car may be more than ten degrees centigrade below ambient temperature.
There are two key grounds for dispute. First the accuracy of the FIA’s track temperature may be disputed. The FIA put the temperate in the low sixties, but Bridgestone’s thermometers put it in the high forties.
McLaren may point to the fact that every other teams’ fuel was in line with the FIA’s figures, and that on past occasions when these figures have appeared incorrect the FIA have instructed the team to adjust that figure. No such order was given at Interlagos.
The second potential dispute concerns how hot the fuel in the car actually was. BMW and Williams were first investigated because the temperature of the fuel in their refuelling equipment was found to be too low. But would it have been sufficiently high once it had been transferred to their cars?
McLaren might be able to show from their own experience that the fuel would not have been heated to the correct minimum temperature by the act of transferring it into their car.
Much has been made of two supposed precedents that point to different outcomes. When the fuel in Mika Hakkinen’s McLaren was found not to match a reference sample he was disqualified and the drivers who finished behind him promoted in the points standings.
But two years earlier when a similar thing happened to Michael Schumacher and David Coulthard in the Brazilian Grand Prix, both drivers kept their points and their teams lost theirs.
Neither of these cases, however, were to do with fuel temperature.
The worst possible outcome would be one that leads to a further appeal – particularly if any party chooses to involve a higher authority.
It’s not likely, but with the championship at stake who’s to say this sorry mess might not drag on even longer?
Photos: Ferrari Media | Ferrari Media | Andrew Ferraro / LAT Photographic