Motor racing: Formula One still steering an unsporting path

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The Independent Online
The allegations of race fixing and foul play may go against the grain but since when did that ever trouble anyone in Formula One, asks Derick Allsop

Even in the close season, Formula One cannot keep the drapes off its seamier side, and the muck-raking is likely to continue all week and possibly beyond as the "sport" is called upon to deal with charges ranging from race fixing to deliberate foul play.

Weekend disclosures of alleged taped pit-to-driver conversations during the final race of the World Championship, at Jerez, a fortnight ago, have been generally interpreted as an overt attempt to discredit Williams and McLaren, and divert attention from the true villain of the piece, Michael Schumacher.

The tapes appear to support the view that during the Grand Prix of Europe, Williams' Jacques Villeneuve, requiring only sixth place to secure the title, allowed McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard through in the final lap as part of a deal arranged between the teams.

With Schumacher out of the way following his "mistake" when he collided with Villeneuve, Williams' sole concern was the other Ferrari driver, Eddie Irvine, whose declared intention was to do all he could to help his team-mate. The McLaren pair effectively neutralised the Ulsterman, and were ultimately rewarded with the presentation of first and second places.

Such apparent arrangements do indeed go against the sporting grain, but since when has that disturbed anyone in Formula One? And how come the tapes were released almost two weeks after the race in question?

Because, as Ferrari's detractors would no doubt claim, they are preparing Schumacher's defence for tomorrow's World Council disciplinary hearing. Perhaps what Formula One should be considering at a further meeting on Friday are the circumstances that led to the revelation of the alleged radio discussions at Jerez.

The leaking of the tapes would appear to be an attempt to discredit Williams and McLaren, and so prepare the ground for a more lenient reception for Schumacher. As Formula Ones organisers are constantly reminding us, a prosperous Ferrari is good for business and promoters do not relish the prospect of staging races next season without the best - even if disgraced - driver in the world.

The Italian team want Schumacher in their car from the start of the 1998 World Championship for obvious reasons and are indignant that teams should not be allowed to form joint opposition. It is being suggested the campaign has another salvo prepared for tomorrow's meeting, a claim that Villeneuve should have been banned from the decisive grand prix after ignoring yellow warning flags at the penultimate event, in Japan.

Bernie Ecclestone, commercial head of Formula One, said: "I can't say much about the case, because I'm on the World Council, but such collisions have been going on for years. It's not the image of the sport that's involved here, it's the image of Schumacher."

"But I'd say that what he did was definitely not pre-meditated. I personally believe he was on the racing line and was shocked when Villeneuve came inside him, so he closed the door. It's a split-second decision."