McLaren lose the sympathy vote in Suzuka

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The Independent Online

If It's Suzuka, it's bound to be controversial. Over the years the challenging Japanese track has seen more than its share of incidents which have shaped the destiny of world championships.

If It's Suzuka, it's bound to be controversial. Over the years the challenging Japanese track has seen more than its share of incidents which have shaped the destiny of world championships.

In 1989 the tensions between the McLaren team-mates Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost finally boiled over into a clumsy collision at the chicane which put the Frenchman out, and left the Brazilian with a damaged car. After a pit stop to change the nose, Senna raced back to catch and pass Alessandro Nannini and score a remarkable victory from which the FIA, the sport's governing body, subsequently disqualified him on the grounds that he did not rejoin the track in the correct manner.

A year later, Senna was still seething and was further incensed when the FIA denied him the right, as pole-winner, to start the race from the side of the track with the greater grip. He vowed that Prost, now driving for Ferrari, would not get round the first corner if he reached it in front of him. True to his threat, Senna decided the outcome of that year's title fight by driving into the back of the Ferrari and sending both into the gravel at 150 mph. It was a long way to go for less than a minute's racing.

By such standards, David Coulthard's deliberate blocking of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher on Sunday was a spat in a kindergarten, but it was no less reprehensible. Time was, team orders amounted to Mercedes-Benz asking Juan Manuel Fangio to slow down in France in 1954, so that his team-mate Karl Kling could catch up and cross the line in formation to rub in the message that the Silver Arrows were back in business. Or Lotus tossing a coin in America in 1967 to see whether Jimmy Clark or Graham Hill would win at Watkins Glen. Fangio and Clark would be disgusted if they could see the tactics that have become a part of racing now.

On Saturday afternoon in Suzuka McLaren won sympathy for their handling of the FIA's decision that the Ferraris were not illegal after all in Malaysia, which reopened the championship chase. And for the dignity with which they reacted to the FIA's accusations that they had brought the sport into disrepute by complaining. Ron Dennis, the McLaren team chief, had explained their philosophy. "We believe firmly that both drivers should be allowed to race, because to run a team in any other way would be a sham," Dennis said in thinly veiled reference to the way in which everything at Ferrari is subjugated to Michael Schumacher's demands.

Dennis also defended the decision to allow Coulthard to win in Belgium even though that might ultimately have cost Hakkinen the title that he clinched again on Sunday.

"Looking back," Dennis said, "the first thing we wouldn't have changed about our season was the result at Spa. No matter how it might have affected the final outcome. I still believe that our approach is the right one. With the benefit of hindsight, if David had won the Grand Prix of Europe he could still have been in contention here. I don't for a minute regret the outcome of that race.

"Our philosophy is that you need quality in a team, and it does not stop with having two strong drivers. It goes to the very fibre of your company, because you need highly motivated people from whom you are asking a lot more than to work a certain number of hours every day. Motor racing is not a job where you just earn a salary.

"You have to ask yourself: 'Are you prepared to win at all cost?' And our answer is no. We are not prepared to win at all costs. We think that there are ways to win, and our approach is consistent with that. It's nothing to do with arrogance, but just a different way to run a company. There are things that you are prepared to do, and things that you are not prepared to do."

It was therefore deeply surprising that McLaren instructed Coulthard to drop back and block Irvine so seriously during the race that he lost nearly 20 seconds. It was a tit-for-tat retaliation that was unnecessary, given that Irvine was in no position to worry Hakkinen, and reflected poorly on a team that everyone, apart from the governing body it would seem, had regarded as a paragon of sporting virtue.

Coulthard was clearly embarrassed by the episode but suggested that, since Ferrari started using the tactic in Malaysia, it has become part of the sport. But it is an element it can do without. "It's a part, for sure," Johnny Herbert, the Grand Prix of Europe winner, said, "but not something I'd ever let myself be forced to do." It is to Formula One what the sudden brake test is to normal motorists on the motorway, a thuggish practise that sooner or later leads to accidents.

Ever since the FIA came up with its 5mm tolerance which absolved Ferrari of blame in Malaysia, there have been calls from virtually every other team to have the technical rules overhauled. But if deliberate blocking has also become part of the racing driver's arsenal, it is clear that the sporting code is also in need of some serious surgery.

As Dennis himself said of Schumacher's tactics in Malaysia: "Just because it might make good television doesn't make it right." Neither does the "they started it first" argument. That is where the real disrepute lies.