Schumacher's harsh penalty hits title ambitions

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The Independent Online

Most observers who witnessed the spectacular accident at the start of the German Grand Prix, in which Ralf Schumacher took out title rivals Kimi Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello, are in agreement that it was his fault, regardless of the fact that he made an unwitting move across the Brazilian and in turn pitched him into contact with the Finn.

However, the general reaction later in the paddock to news that the race stewards intend to impose a penalty of 10 grid places on the young German for the next race, the Hungarian Grand Prix in Budapest on 24 August, is that this was an unduly harsh punishment for what was judged, at the end of the day, to have been a racing accident.

Schumacher Jnr did not help his own cause by going into the stewards' post-race meeting without waiting for support and counsel from his team manager, by agreeing that the stewards could go ahead with the hearing in the latter's absence, and by admitting "to paying no attention to the position of the other cars" during the manoeuvre that triggered the incident.

None of this showed the wisdom or judgement of a man who aspires to be world champion. However, in his defence, nobody seems to have taken into account the fact that there is precious little chance of any driver seated low in the high-sided cockpit of a modern racing machine having sufficient peripheral vision to see a car on the outside of the one that is already alongside him.

The concept of penalising miscreants grid places at the next race was introduced in 2002 as a means of punishing drivers who have retired from a race and cannot therefore be given a more traditional stop-and-go penalty or a time penalty. The first "victim" was the young Brazilian driver, Felipe Massa, whose Sauber-Petronas hit the Spaniard Pedro de la Rosa's Jaguar in the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

The penalty was imposed by different stewards, and was also adjudged to be unfair. Massa had overtaken De la Rosa on the entry to the Ascari chicane, and when he resisted the move, they collided. In most racing accidents it takes two to tango, and on this occasion the blame could more fairly have been shared equally.

Like Schumacher, Massa suffered already because his race was over, but was punished further as, rather than accept a 10-grid place penalty, angry team owner Peter Sauber decided to bypass the judgement altogether by running the driver who would replace Massa for 2003 - Heinz-Harald Frentzen - at the United States Grand Prix at Indianapolis, the race that followed Monza.

This was a neat riposte to a harsh judgement that cost the team nothing, but it made Massa's fate even worse because he did not start further back on the grid but missed a race altogether.

Immediately after the news of Schumacher's penalty there was speculation that BMW-Williams might run their test driver, the Spaniard Marc Gene, in Hungary, maintaining their own chances in the world championship for constructors by similarly avoiding the punishment. However, this year the governing body have stopped up that loophole and the stewards' directive made it clear that the penalty would be applicable at the driver's next race, not the team's.

Instead, Williams' appeal will cite procedural breaches by the stewards, Nazir Hoosein, Radovan Novak and Waltraud Wunsch, in the handling of the crash at Hockenheim

Schumacher's indiscretion has already done immeasurable harm to his championship chances. Having to start from 11th place, at best, in Hungary, where overtaking at the Hungaroring is virtually impossible, could all but dash them.

WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP STANDINGS: 1 M Schumacher (Ger) Ferrari 71pts; 2 J Montoya (Col) Williams-BMW 65; 3 K Raikkonen (Fin) McLaren-Mercedes 62; 4 R Schumacher (Ger) Williams-BMW 53; 5 R Barrichello (Br) Ferrari 49; 6 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 44; 7 D Coulthard (GB) McLaren-Mercedes 41; 8 J Trulli (It) Renault 22; 9 Jenson Button (GB) BAR-Honda 12; 10 M Webber (Aus) Jaguar 12; 11 G Fisichella (It) Jordan-Cosworth 10; 12 C Da Matta (Br) Toyota 8; 13 H-H Frentzen (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 7; 14 Olivier Panis (Fr) Toyota 6; 15 J Villeneuve (Can) BAR-Honda 3; 16 N Heidfeld (Ger) Sauber-Petronas 2; 17 R Firman (GB) Jordan-Cosworth 1.