Motor Racing: FIA rejects Benetton claim over missing fuel filter: Championship leaders could be banned from Formula One as manufacturer backs governing body in fireball controversy

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THE already strained relations between the Benetton-Ford team and the governing body of motor sport took a further turn for the worse yesterday when FIA rejected Benetton's claim that it had been informed of the deliberate removal of a fuel filter in their fuel pumping mechanism, and went on to make it clear the team could be banned from Formula One over the controversy.

On Wednesday, FIA had summoned the world championship leaders before it to explain why the filter was removed during the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim 12 days ago. At that race a fireball engulfed Jos Verstappen's car while it was being refuelled during a pit stop.

An FIA report on the fire, in which Verstappen and five mechanics received minor burns, said the absence of the fuel filter could have resulted in debris affecting the mechanism. Benetton responded by saying they had informed the FIA's technical delegate, Charlie Whiting, of their intention to remove the filter and had received permission to do so.

This was firmly rejected by FIA yesterday. 'Permission was certainly not given,' Francesco Longanesi, a spokesman, said. 'Any query on technical regulations should be addressed to FIA in writing and we have not received a letter from Benetton on this matter.'

Longanesi added: 'We will hear what they have to say and all we can say now is that they face sanctions ranging from a reprimand to their disqualification, which would mean their exclusion from Formula One.'

The French company which manufactures the refuelling system for Formula One, Intertechnique, has backed up FIA, releasing a statement yesterday which said any modification to the system must go to them via the ruling body.

'No proposition of this type was made,' Intertechnique said. 'Any proposition to modify refuelling equipment is made in writing to Intertechnique via FIA. Intertechnique then replies by letter, always via FIA. If a proposal to remove the filter had been made, it would have been refused for technical and safety reasons written in the letter sent to teams on 24 February.'

Benetton will have to account for their actions on 19 October. Whiting, as well as officials at Benetton, all adopted a low profile yesterday. It is understood many knuckles have been rapped for speaking out of turn. The valve may have been removed to improve the flow of fuel and speed up the team's pit-stops.

Meanwhile as Formula One personnel reassembled here for Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, one factor was starkly evident: the fear of fire has rarely been so acute.

The mechanics and drivers of all teams, and those of Benetton- Ford especially, are now even more aware of the dangers of a fuel explosion. Only one of those

involved in the German accident, Simon Morley, will not be playing his part at the pit-stop routine. The rest were practising last evening, ready to do their job as normal. One admitted: 'We're scared stiff.'

Damon Hill, the driver threatening to challenge Benetton's

Michael Schumacher for the world championship, is terrified at the prospect of a safety valve to the fuel tank of his Williams-Renault being forced open in a crash. The Englishman said: 'It worries me that we have an open valve to the petrol tank rather than a sealed unit. Imagine being upside down in a gravel trap with petrol leaking out. It takes only light pressure to open the valve. The consequences don't bear thinking about.

'That Benetton fire was out in four seconds. Can anyone get to me in four seconds when I'm in a gravel trap? It's something I intend to bring before the Grand Prix Drivers Association.'

Renault announced yesterday that it has signed a new three-year deal to supply Williams, ending weeks of speculation that the two partners might split after six successful years together.