Motor Racing: Benetton face dual mission in Paris

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The Independent Online
BENETTON-FORD today begin a round of political and diplomatic challenges which could determine their world championship fate, adamant that they are not cheats.

As their No 1 driver, Michael Schumacher, appears before a tribunal to contest a two-race suspension from the world governing body, the FIA, Benetton will formally lodge an appeal against the latest penalty imposed by the Formula One authorities: the disqualification of the German in Sunday's Belgian Grand Prix because the skidblock under his car was too shallow.

It is normal procedure for such an appeal to be heard within nine days and as Benetton are due in Paris tomorrow week to explain the removal of a filter from their refuelling equipment at the German Grand Prix, that trip may be turned into a two-pronged mission.

If the two appeals are dismissed and Britain's Damon Hill wins the next two races, Schumacher will return to the track for the final three grands prix holding only a one-point advantage over the Williams-Renault driver: a one-sided championship conveniently transformed into a genuine contest.

Hill says he would have no sympathy for Schumacher or Benetton should it be proved they had an illegal car and certainly there would be no tears shed by other teams for anyone caught deliberately infringing regulations. There was, however, discernible concern within Formula One yesterday that FIA might have been too heavy-handed in the case of the 'plank'.

The stewards at Spa, acting on a report by FIA's technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, ruled that because a forward section of the 10mm deep plank had worn by substantially more than the permitted 10 per cent, Schumacher should be disqualified. Benetton argued in vain that as the overall weight of the plank was more than 90 per cent it did not breach regulations.

Ross Brawn, the technical director of Benetton, said last night that he and his colleagues on the official technical working group, who devise such regulations, were agreed on a '90 per cent weight reference rate'. In this instance, the weight was deemed irrelevant. Brawn said: 'It was never intended that somebody should make a subjective judgement on such an issue because anyone out of favour could get a raw deal. We thought we had a clear regulation but it is a matter of interpretation.

'We totally refute any suggestion that we have been cheating. This is my third season with the team and I don't think they have ever been guilty of any infringement. Why didn't we do any cheating last year? Did we suddenly turn a switch last winter? We don't suddenly start cheating, particularly with the performance advantage and the driver we've got.'

The suspicion is that Schumacher's car was set too low at the front to gain an aerodynamic advantage, but it would be especially foolhardy of Benetton to take undue risks against the backdrop of recent events. Rain during practice left all the teams guessing about an optimum ride height, though Benetton maintain Schumacher's car had the same settings as that of their other driver, Jos Verstappen, which was also examined and found to be legal.

This latest drama has hardened opinion in Germany that the British-based team are letting down Schumacher and that he should find himself alternative employment. Brawn said: 'I have spoken to Michael about this and he says he's very happy with the team, and just wants us to be left alone. He says he doesn't believe the team cheats.'