Motor Racing: Benetton's colours running: David Tremayne believes the image of the leading grand prix team is now tarnished

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The Independent Online
THE cloud that shadowed Michael Schumacher's world championship challenge last week, when the governing body, FIA, imposed a two-race ban on him, developed further into a storm of controversy on Friday.

In Paris the previous Tuesday, the World Motor Sport Council imposed the suspension on him because he had ignored the black flag - the immutable signal that a driver must stop at the pits immediately - during the British Grand Prix three weeks ago. It was unthinkable that he would actually miss his home grand prix, but Max Mosley, the president of FIA, had cleverly thrown the onus on to the Benetton team to appeal against the suspension, in which case Schumacher would be free to race, and score points, until the appeal could be heard. Mindful that earlier in the year the appeal court had imposed a harsher sentence on the miscreant driver Eddie Irvine, the Benetton team leader, Flavio Briatore, then had to weigh up the risks before he duly lodged the appeal on Thursday.

At the same time as it imposed the ban, FIA revealed that Benetton had been fined for a two-month delay in providing key information about the computer systems used on Schumacher's car in the San Marino Grand Prix at Imola in May, the race in which Ayrton Senna died.

On Friday, Benetton received another hammer blow when FIA revealed the technical report on the team's computer system even though the World Council had decided that the 'best evidence' is that the team were not in contravention of the regulations in that race.

The report, which had been submitted by the FIA technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, alleged that Benetton possessed a facility to run a special 'launch control' starting system which operated the clutch and gearshift automatically while regulating the engine to avoid wheelspin. This is specifically banned under the new 1994 regulations against driver aids.

Benetton refuted the allegations, admitting they had the software but denying it had been activated for the race. The World Council accepted there was some evidence to back up their claims. Had the report been upheld, the team could have been excluded from the championship.

Their claims that they only used the system in testing were met with derision in the pit lane, while passages in the report revealing that the system's software had been well concealed merely increased speculation.

'Under no circumstances would Benetton, Ford, Cosworth or myself knowingly operate outside of the 1994 FIA Formula One regulations,' Schumacher said. 'Such an action is inconceivable as it would question the integrity of all parties.'

That being so, one is bound to ask why FIA chose to reveal the precise nature of the report, knowing full well that it would raise questions that will inevitably detract from Benetton's remarkable successes so far this season, and tarnish the championship crown if Schumacher were to win it.