James Lawton: How can the McLaren drivers be totally innocent while their team is so guilty?

It is not often you see a whole and hugely financed sport turn bad before your eyes, when so many levels of doubt and scepticism recede before the irrefutable, and irretrievable, fact that at its highest level it has become rotten to its core.

Is this an extreme view of the crisis of Formula One – and the myth that this nation will have anything of truth and substance to celebrate if its new young hero, Lewis Hamilton, is crowned world champion in the near future?

Only if you did not yesterday trawl through the evidence that Hamilton's McLaren team-mates Pedro de la Rosa, the test driver, and reigning world champion Fernando Alonso traded exultant emails about the reliability of the trade secrets of rivals Ferrai that had come pouring into their possession.

Hamilton's involvement, or lack of it, was untouched by the tide of damning information revealed by the sport's ruling body FIA, evidence that, despite the teary denials of McLaren boss Ron Dennis, made the decision to fine the team £50million – or roughly one 10th of their annual turnover – seem nothing so much as a tap on the wrist.

But then, it could not now become any clearer and one of Hamilton's toughest lessons in his meteoric rise is the one he faces now. It is the concept of guilt by association: de la Rosa's job is to refine the racing strategy that has helped the young Briton to the top of the world drivers' championship table in his first season. It is inconceivable that, for all his talent, Hamilton should now benefit in any way from by this shocking breakdown in basic sporting values.

Indeed, the ultimate scandal is both bizarre and sickening. It is that when the fine was handed down to McLaren here on Thursday, along with the removal of all their points in the Constructors Championship, it was decreed that the drivers should still be free to compete, with all their points intact, for the sport's highest prize.

This, we were told, meant that the the public would not be denied the spectacle of the head-to-head between Hamilton and Alonso. But then as spectacles go, you might think that a front row view of a raid on a poor box might be just be as uplifting. Certainly it is no slight on the exceptional talent of Hamilton to say that if he is rewarded with the greatest prize his sport can offer – one which was denied Stirling Moss in a long and stupendous career – it will not only carry an asterisk but also a flag of distress to separate it from all the others that, by and large, have been won down the years in circumstances that were rather more honourable .

How can any of this possibly be foisted on the public? It is because Formula One believes it has a prime seller in the duel, an instant and likeable hero in the huge British market, and apparently the ruling body do not see, or don't want to see, that they have put together a set of decisons which permit only one interpretation. It is that on top of all the other grotesque imbalances of power and wealth, the world driving championship can be won on the back of cheating as fundamental as that of any drug-ridden athlete.

Dennis said that the great bank of Ferrari data had laid as discarded as a neatly piled mountain of junk mail. We know now that it just wasn't true.

It is disquieting to come from this unavoidable conclusion and see that Sir Jackie Stewart, such a moral backbone of the sport in his campaign to wipe away the suspicion that a reluctance to approve proper safety regulations might have something to do with the commercial appeal of the high risk to their lives under which the stars of the sport routinely operated, can muster not a lot more than bewilderment over the stunning contradictions implicit in this week's judgement.

Into this void has come the most questionable claim of all. It is that in some Solomon-esque way the sport has punished the guilty but preserved a "wonderful" contest.

Shock, though, is once again a matter of degree. When Michael Schumacher drove Jacques Villeneuve off the track at Jerez in 1997 in a failed attempt to deny him the world title some were fanciful enough to believe that he might just pay a significant price. Of course he didn't, He was deducted points in a championship he had already lost and was sent to a session on driving safety. The Schu's eyes narrowed slightly when he heard the verdict and somehow managed not to produce one of his more glacial smiles.

Something else that Formula One doesn't appear to grasp is that in no other area of sport can success for any individual be so heavily determined by the quality of his equipment. The doyen of team bosses, Sir Frank Williams, once compared the agonising over the appointment of a new driver with the blindfolded pinning of the tail on a stage donkey.

No-one is saying that either Hamilton or Alonso are not hugely talented race drivers. But then there are some who believe that young contenders like Robert Kubica and Nico Rosberg need only faster cars to make the same kind of impact.

Many years ago the late James Hunt speculated that the march of engineering and aerodynamics would one day reduce the star driver to the role of a glorified "wheel turner". He said that the value of the best driver was down to no more than 50 per cent of a team's package and he could easily see the day when it would be no more than 10 per cent.

It was a view that Williams, beset by the controversy over his decision to drop another British hero, Damon Hill, at the very least did not seem to strenuously oppose.

What the amiable, good-hearted Hunt could not have envisaged was a day when the men who shaped his sport decided they could stand both logic and morality on their heads.

It is, of course, one thing for the former Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn to boast of the extra resources his team could bring to the battle if the ruling body made moves to limit the testing advantages of the most powerful teams, if they finally got round to the challenge of trying to level, at least a little, the playing field. It is something else again, though, for the authorities to deliver a record fine, to treat McLaren as though they have betrayed all of their sport, while at the same permitting their drivers to roar on.

Maybe such gross contradictions can be absorbed by the more committed followers who in the past have not always demonstrated a sure hold on values that might just reach beyond the red-hot imperatives of the track.

Ferrari's tifosi, after all, once screamed "chicken" at their erstwhile hero Niki Lauda when he judged conditions too dangerous to pursue a world title challenge. Lauda shook his head as he left the track. A few weeks earlier he had received the last rites from a priest after narrowly avoiding incineration at the Nurburgring.

Now, presumably, the supporters of another camp will cheer madly for the heroes of a team now proved to have grown stronger on the stolen work of their principal rivals. Such a presumption, was surely one motivating force of the judges that came, blinking but unabashed, into the late summer sunshine here this week.

It was as though they they had no sense of the shadow they had created over a sport proposes to resume in Spa, Belgium, this weekend the illusion of normal business. If this is sporting madness, it is not one that has been thus far seized upon with anything like fury.

Indeed, there has been a strong sense that somehow Lewis Hamilton has been rescued from unwarranted threats to extraordinary drive into the sun. Here is the ultimate mistake. Hamilton is not apart from the scandal. Whether he is free of any blame or not, he is at its centre... and may yet be the supreme winner in a race which has lost all moral footing.

You may say that he deserves a lot better than this, but then doesn't anyone who ever chose to believe that Formula One has much anything to to do with something we like to call sport?

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