High farce and low blows

Richard Williams says that discordant noises have blighted the grand prix season
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The Independent Online
HOW ODD that a sport which is literally a matter of life and death should conduct itself as if it were low farce. Yet again, in Brazil and Argentina, a grand prix season has opened with passages of pure burlesque: the row over the drivers' licences, the disqualification and reinstatement of the reigning world champion, the business of the drivers' weights. Here is a sport that could well die of laughter.

But it was hard to smile last week, when the days leading up to the first anniversary of the tragedies of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenberger were prefaced by a squalid little argy- bargy between Michael Schu- macher, Senna's successor, and Gerhard Berger, the late Brazilian's best friend in the paddock.

The row began at the post-race press conference in Sao Paulo, when, to their astonishment, Schumacher and David Coult-hard were informed that their first and second places were provisional, pending analysis of their petrol. What that means, said the mischievous Berger, who finished third, is that your fuel's illegal and I'm the winner.

Schumacher, who sometimes gives the impression that a sense of humour was left out of his software package, picked up the microphone. OK, he said, so they penalise us a lap. That still means we'd finish in front of you. Where Berger's remark had been intended as a joke, Schumacher's was a veiled insult, revealing the arrogance which many believe runs deep.

A few hours later, Schumacher was not merely penalised but disqualified, along with Coulthard. The race was given to Berger - who, understandably pleased by what appeared to be a clear case of virtue rewarded , indulged in a glass or two of champagne.

"I can't understand how anyone can celebrate a victory that he achieved when he was lying one lap behind," Schumacher then told a Bild journalist, in an interview which appeared last week. And he couldn't let it rest there. "If Berger was as talented at driving a car as he is at public relations," he continued, "he'd have won a lot more races."

Berger was not slow to reply. "Schumacher," he told Austrian television, "is the sort of callous egotist who thinks it's OK to spray champagne around just after somebody's been killed." He was thinking of Imola last year, when the German won the race in which Senna crashed. Schumacher had stood on the podium with Nicola Larini and Mika Hakkinen, none of them knowing quite how to cope with success in such circumstances.

"Berger has a short memory," the German responded. "First, there was no champagne. Second, Senna's death was only announced later."

"Listen," Berger told an Italian journalist last Thursday, "make sure you can translate the words `clown' and `liar'..."

These disputes, as we learnt from the Senna-Prost-Mansell era, are good for the box-office appeal. But it would be nice to see Formula One rise above such a low level of discourse when it returns to Imola this week on a wave of emotion.

The governing body does not help restore dignity when it produces something like its historic ruling on the Schumacher-Coulthard affair, reinstating the drivers and thereby establishing a watertight precedent for absolving a driver from the guilt of his team. Call it cowardice, or call it an enlightened attempt to avoid punishing the innocent, but this decision will come back to haunt Max Mosley one day.

Meanwhile, when the drivers assemble on Thursday to familiarise themselves with the new outline of the circuit, the British will be watching to see what Nigel Mansell can make of his new McLaren-Mercedes, with its bespoke chassis. Miracles will be expected, but realistically his troubled start to the season means that a finish in the points would represent success.

The rest of the world will be watching Ferrari, the home team, who have not won at Imola, on the track named after old Enzo Ferrari and his son Dino, since 1983. Next Sunday the universally popular Jean Alesi will be hoping to mark his first grand prix victory, at the 90th time of asking and in his fifth season with the team. But, for all his efforts to catch Damon Hill in Buenos Aires, the final stages of the race proved the superiority of the Williams. Still, he and Berger will have a revised V12 engine, meaning that the tifosi thronging the soft green hillsides will be assured of a glorious noise, at the very least.

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