Tapes of radio conversations between the Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve, who clinched the World Championship by finishing third, and his pit crew, were reproduced in yesterday's Times and appear to confirm suspicions that Williams and McLaren had discussed a pre-race strategy - calculated to benefit both at the Ferrari team's expense.
Michael Schumacher, driving a Ferrari, exited the race in disgrace after he appeared deliberately to drive his car into the side of Villeneuve's Williams in a vain effort to prevent him overtaking and to protect his own one-point championship lead. He is expected to use the tapes as part of his defence when he appears before the World Motor Sport Council in London on Tuesday to answer for conduct that was widely condemned. It is thought that Schumacher will use the tapes to highlight the dubious morality of Formula One, and thus try to lessen his own guilt.
Immediately after the race, Villeneuve said that the handling of his car had suffered in the collision with Schumacher, and that this was why he had allowed the McLarens of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard to pass on the last lap. To compete at that stage when his only rival - Schumacher - was out of the race would have been an unnecessary risk for Villeneuve, who only had to finish sixth to be sure of becoming champion. It was also the case that early in the race the McLaren drivers, who had no chance of winning the championship themselves, had allowed Schumacher and Villeneuve to fight for the lead, and the title, without interference from them.
"Towards the end Mika got very close to me," Villeneuve said. "It was a question of either pushing like a maniac and risking going off with the way the car was handling, or seeing if he made a move and then just letting him through. He made a move so I let him by, and David was very close, so I didn't fight him either." On the tapes, as the McLarens closed in, Williams' technical director Patrick Head says to Villenueve's race engineer, Jock Clear: "To repeat, Jock. We are more concerned with the championship than the race positions."
Clear then reportedly says to Villeneuve: "Hakkinen quite quick and very helpful. Be aware that Hakkinen is now position two. He probably wants to win. Very helpful." And as the Finnish driver closed in on the last lap: "Hakkinen has been very helpful. Jacques, position two. Don't let me down, Jacques. We discussed this."
Had it not been the last race of the season, and had Villeneuve not been in a situation in which third place would have been sufficient to win him the title, it is unthinkable that one team would willingly have surrendered a victory to another. Prize money is a closely guarded secret, but a win is a win. None the less, the physical evidence of Villeneuve's tyres also confirmed afterwards that his car had been handling erratically since the incident with Schumacher on the 48th lap. Williams will argue strongly that advising caution to Villeneuve made perfect sense in the circumstances, for to have thrown away the World Championship in a last-lap resistance would have been pure folly.
There is nothing new in one driver "allowing" another to win. Nelson Piquet let Riccardo Patrese by in South Africa in 1983; Ayrton Senna did likewise for Gerhard Berger in Japan in 1991; and Nigel Mansell for Patrese at the same circuit a year later. On each occasion, the championship had been settled - although unlike in Jerez, each driver gave way to a team- mate rather than to members of rival teams. In that respect, Villeneuve's actions were unusual, but not necessarily reprehensible.
The FIA is expected to launch its own investigation into the allegations of race "fixing". But as far as the tapes providing Schumacher with a meaningful line of defence on Tuesday, the idea is far-fetched. The German's collision with Villeneuve and Villeneuve's manoevres later in the race have no relevance to each other.