Motor Racing: No brake in McLaren routine

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The Independent Online
MCLAREN MAY have lost the battle to retain their controversial braking system, following successful protests lodged this weekend, but Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard symbolically raised two fingers to the opposition yesterday by continuing to dominate F1 qualifying.

Both had been obliged to run without the jiggle brakes they used when crushing rivals in the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne three weeks ago, but the cars re-established themselves as the cream of the field from the moment they ran in anger on Friday, leaving other teams scratching their heads and seeking fresh reasons for the breathtaking speed of the silver cars.

The Interlagos circuit exposed the reduced grip of the latest breed of F1 cars more than Melbourne did. During Saturday morning's free practice session the World Champion Jacques Villeneuve's disastrous day began when he damaged his Williams-Mecachrome after sliding off the road. Even Coulthard had a long walk home, spinning his McLaren-Mercedes after momentarily displacing Hakkinen from the top of the time-sheets. The Scot earned himself a rebuke from the team chief, Ron Dennis, by abandoning his car and its cockpit secrets to the mercy of photographers.

When the Benetton driver Alexander Wurz set the fastest time partway through yesterday's qualifying session Hakkinen immediately put things into perspective by lapping a full second faster, but Villeneuve's efforts to get close met with another spin. Hakkinen, however, needed to set the fastest time twice after the race stewards threatened that a number of drivers, the Finn among them, would forfeit their fastest qualifying times which were gained in the morning while the yellow caution flag was out. Hakkinen duly achieved the feat, although the stewards later accepted the argument of the drivers, who said they did not see the flags.

These same officials had already failed to distinguish themselves when they considered the raft of official protests lodged against McLaren, Williams and Jordan by the Ferrari, Tyrrell, Arrows and Sauber teams late on Friday. These alleged that their brake systems contravened the technical regulations.

Ferrari orchestrated the dissent, with their sporting director, Jean Todt, alleging that the system contravened rules which ban four-wheel steering. In a letter to the FIA, Ferrari contended that the FIA technical delegate Charlie Whiting's original view had been too narrow when he defined steering as any mechanism which altered the relative alignment of the wheels. In reply, Whiting had in effect invited Ferrari to protest and take the matter to the part-time stewards of the meeting for adjudication at the next race.

After deliberating, the lay officials handed down a judgment in favour of Ferrari and their cohorts. Their competence to judge technical issues was not immediately obvious, but at a stroke the stewards undermined not just the leading technical directors - Adrian Newey of McLaren, Patrick Head of Williams, and Gary Anderson of Jordan - but also Whiting himself.

Dennis has contended ever since the controversy arose in Melbourne that his team has followed the letter of the law in keeping Whiting informed of its technical intentions, while seeking his approval. This Whiting gave after accepting McLaren's contention that the ability to operate either rear brake independently of the other in corners, to promote more efficient cornering, was within the letter and the spirit of the technical regulations. Williams and Jordan had followed similar procedure.

Ferrari disagreed with Whiting's interpretation and mustered their forces for a confrontation here on Thursday. The outcome is seen as yet further indication of Ferrari's favoured status with the FIA, and Dennis has not ruled out further action. McLaren's subsequent performance prompted cynics to suggest, however, that Ferrari was ill-advised to protest away another excuse for its lamentable inability to match the British team's pace.

In a feeble sop, the stewards censured Ferrari for its allegations that the controversial systems were dangerous. Surely Ferrari does not expect the stewards to bring up technical details for adjudication on matters that they do not have access to otherwise. Moreover, McLaren, Williams and Jordan are very responsible competitors and such inferences are not warranted.

Amid the maelstrom, the Benetton team remained an oasis of calm as their chief, David Richards, ignored the conflict: "We made a conscious decision to stay away from it all. I don't feel that it served any purpose for us to become embroiled," said Richards. "I think we've got other priorities on our mind at the moment, and I fundamentally think the situation is very flawed when teams have to protest against each other to solve technical regulations which are the domain of the FIA."

Later, the stewards issued a communication censuring Arrows for using the expression "fiddle brakes" in their protest, misinterpreting terminology from trials car racing as a slur implying surreptitious activity. That blunder was an apt summary of another bleak weekend for F1's credibility, already damaged by McLaren's controversial team tactics in Australia.