Motor Racing: McLaren deny Jerez pact with Williams

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Michael Schumacher is not the only one having to explain his actions to motor sport's governing body today.

McLaren and Williams will also be in the dock accused of race-fixing, a charge they strongly deny. Derick Allsop reports.

Ron Dennis, the team principal of McLaren-Mercedes, insisted yesterday that there was no pact with Williams-Renault to ensure Jacques Villeneuve beat Michael Schumacher to the Formula One world championship.

And he denied his drivers, Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, were allowed to pass Villeneuve and take first and second places at the controversial Grand Prix of Europe as a reward.

The head of Williams, Frank Williams, had already dismissed the leaking of taped pit to driver conversations during the race as an attempt by Ferrari to discredit the British teams and deflect attention from Schumacher's disciplinary hearing in Slough today. "We reject in the strongest possible terms any allegation of unsporting or improper conduct," he said.

However, McLaren and Williams now find themselves on the same bill as Schumacher, defending charges brought by the FIA, motor sport's governing body, that they colluded.

Dennis' explanation is that he and his team merely honoured a commitment not to interfere in the contest between Villeneuve and Schumacher for the championship.

"My biggest concern is that all this may perpetuate a view that is obviously held by another team that we had something to do with the outcome of the world championship. That is obviously ludicrous," he said.

"We're being questioned about our integrity, but we have acknowledged that we specifically told our drivers before the last two races not to get in the way of the world championship. I'm not putting our team on a pedestal, but if our drivers had gone out and aggressively attacked they could have been involved in an incident that would have been detrimental to the sport.

"Our drivers were not involved in the world championship, so I believe it was the right sporting decision to let the two drivers contesting the championship fight it out."

Dennis is adamant his drivers were not instructed to protect Villeneuve from the other Ferrari driver, Eddie Irvine.

"Irvine dropped away. He was miles behind," he said. "In the closing stages our guys were catching Villeneuve. He knew he didn't have to win and in a situation like that he's not going to resist, he's going to move over."

Whatever verdict is reached at today's hearing, Formula One is likely to come out of it with another result.

There has been such posturing, pontificating, political conniving and mud-slinging in the 16 days since Schumacher turned his Ferrari into Villeneuve's Williams you might be led to believe grand prix racing is on the point of crisis and the authorities are cowering under the bombardment.

Far from it. This organisation revels in publicity and will take all the flak. The world-wide outcry over Schumacher's actions at Jerez and the stewards' ruling that it was "a racing accident" prompted Formula One's hierarchy to step in and summon the German to a World Council hearing.

Max Mosley, the president of the FIA, is a political opportunist and this was another situation where the leaders had to be seen to be leading. He, of course, is a long-time ally of Bernie Ecclestone, head of Formula One's commercial operation, and supreme business opportunist. Little happens in their world without them being involved.

Ecclestone has said it is not the image of the sport, but the image of Schumacher that is at issue here. At the end of the 1994 season, decided by Schumacher's collision with Damon Hill, Mosley openly expressed the opinion that if Formula One was the topic of conversation in pubs and clubs he saw no reason to be concerned.

The fact is that Formula One is not really a sport at all. It is an industry which makes some of those involved extremely wealthy. That prosperity depends on sponsorship and viewing figures, which in turn are driven by publicity.

Schumacher and Ferrari are the most productive sources of publicity: he is the best driver in the world, they are the legendary marque. To have the red car out at the front is especially good for business.

This may explain the leaking of the "Jerez tapes" which allegedly show McLaren and Williams behaving in an unsporting fashion. To that end also, it is being suggested Villeneuve should have been banned from the decisive Grand Prix of Europe after ignoring warning flags during the previous race in Japan, for which he was merely deducted points.

Schumacher has admitted he made a mistake at Jerez, but did not deliberately crash into Villeneuve. He knows he is likely to be punished, and has talked of losing points and/or a fine. Deducting points for the 1998 season could be a convenient means of punishing him yet ensuring the main attraction is on the grid for the opening race.

Hard-liners demand the World Council invoke a one-race suspended ban, throw him out of another couple and hit him with a fine of at least $1m (pounds 600,000).

With or without Schumacher, the show will go on - and so will the publicity machine.