Motor Racing: Formula One, Integrity Nil

Controversy the oxygen of a sport whose commercial considerations override the moral arguments; David Tremayne weights the impact of the Schumacher verdict on a sport's reputation
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MICHAEL Schumacher last week walked away from an FIA hearing, escaping the ban that had been expected following his unacceptable driving tactics and taking with him the last vestige of dignity of a sport that has been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons.

The German was in the dock for deliberately trying to ram his world championship rival Jacques Villeneuve out of the GP of Europe in Jerez on 26 October, but the only thing to be hammered was Formula One's tattered credibility.

"The World Council has come to the conclusion that although Michael Schumacher acted deliberately," said the FIA president Max Mosley, drawing a semantic distinction, "it was instinctive and not premeditated. Careful consideration was given to banning him for 1998 but it concluded that to do so would be futile, because there is no driver competing in 1998 who would not be ready to accept a ban in 1999 if he could win the championship in 1998. So it would not be a deterrent in any sense."

Mosley's uncomplimentary view of driver morality was countered by David Coulthard, twice a winner this season for McLaren-Mercedes. "I've never been in a position where a championship is at stake in F1. Maybe if that was the case I would be prepared to do something to win that championship if I believed it was right, but I don't think I could do something which I knew was wrong to win a race, and I wouldn't want to. I would much rather someone else won that race, rather than have taken it in circumstances that I know are not within the rules and sport."

Despite Mosley's low opinion, the majority of drivers share Coulthard's view of what constitutes sporting behaviour. "Michael's explanation was that it was instinctive," mused Damon Hill, Schumacher's road-rage victim in Adelaide in 1994. "But it is also instinctive not to do things that way."

It's been a bad week for the sport, with the hearings into Schumacher's misdemeanour and claims that Williams and McLaren had colluded to influence the outcome of the Jerez race, backdropped by the ongoing Senna trial in Italy; and themselves overshadowed on the front pages by the furore over allegations that the Government's U-turn on tobacco sponsorship may have been influenced by contributions to its coffers by Mosley and Bernie Ecclestone, F1's powerbrokers.

Meanwhile, the commercial side merely gets stronger. Controversy has become the oxygen injected into this stream of burnt gases, and like the afterburner on a jet engine it simply re-ignites the image and further boosts F1's global power. Since Senna's death at Imola four seasons ago, the sport has moved far into the era of the sensational news story, when no publicity can be bad publicity. Today's headlines last only as long as it takes to read them. By Melbourne next March, who but the true aficionado will remember what Schumacher did to Villeneuve?

Already in Italy the bridges are being rebuilt, as Fiat's Gianni Agnelli played down Schumacher's action as "a mistake". The FIA had the perfect opportunity to make an example of Schumacher, to make the statement that they were not prepared to tolerate the sort of brutal tactics born when Senna deliberately drove Alain Prost out of the 1990 Japanese GP.

Instead, they chose to ignore the counsel of past champions such as Jackie Stewart, whose safety crusade in the Sixties materially enhanced drivers' chances of surviving what used to be regarded as a blood sport. A stern guardian of the sport's ethics and morals, Stewart said: "Guys like Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney and Denny Hulme would never have done what Michael did. Neither would Stirling Moss or Fangio. Every young driver will have seen that, and if they see someone getting away with it that behaviour will then be mirrored in every other form of motorsport. If something isn't done, eventually there is going to be a massive accident."

Ken Tyrrell, whose team had its points in the 1984 championship cancelled for alleged technical infringements that many felt to be spurious, said. "I am still waiting for somebody to tell me what punishment he received. Really, he hasn't had any punishment. It is no penalty." His suggestion that Schumacher should have started the 1998 season with a points deficit was the most sanely compelling in a bad week. At a stroke it would have levied a suitable penalty, provided a mechanism whereby the paying public could still see their disgraced idol, and put upon him an onus for more acceptable behaviour. But, of course, it went unheeded, for while Schumacher may be an Untouchable to some, he is clearly untouchable to others.

The idea that a man who has now twice deliberately attempted to drive championship rivals off the race track will now work out a penance that is as laughable as the excuses he propounded for his behaviour, by taking part in an FIA programme of European Union road safety, is akin to inviting Mike Tyson to edit the Good Food Guide.

As Damon Hill said: "Having his points deducted is like having your rubbish taken away from you. The points this year are of no interest to him."

"This was not what Formula One should be about," said Jody Scheckter, the last man to win a world championship title in a Ferrari, who felt that a three-race ban would have been apposite.

Unfortunately, this is what Formula One has become.