Sympathy but little hope for Ferrari

NOBODY, APART perhaps from the McLaren team, wanted to see the most gripping world championship contest of the decade peter out like a damp firework in the wake of the exclusion of Ferrari's Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher from their remarkable one-two success in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.

NOBODY, APART perhaps from the McLaren team, wanted to see the most gripping world championship contest of the decade peter out like a damp firework in the wake of the exclusion of Ferrari's Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher from their remarkable one-two success in Sunday's Malaysian Grand Prix.

But though the team principals appear to have been discouraging comment, the mood in Formula One circles is that rules are rules. Ferrari has dropped a ball in the weeds that cannot be retrieved, no matter how much the well-being of the forthcoming Japanese Grand Prix might depend upon it.

Feelings in Italy run high for the legendary team, but where blind anger at injustice might have been expected just as Irvine's fingers were stretching to grasp what became a poisoned chalice, the reality is that the overriding emotion is anger that Ferrari should have made what seems a trivial - but monumental - engineering error.

One leading team owner said: "We all have access to the Fédération Internationale de Automobilisme [the sport's ruling body] measuring rig at races, which enables us to confirm our cars comply with the technical regulations. Clearly there was some sort of oversight at Ferrari... there's a bit of Ferrari in all of us and I'm sure many would like to see them win the title, but the rule book is there specifically to avoid emotional interpretations in these difficult situations. It's a disappointing way to end the championship, but this is a multi-million dollar sport and everyone has to accept their responsibilities."

Ferrari claims that the irregularity in its barge boards had no performance advantage, but the side of the car is a crucial aerodynamic area and the international sporting code specifically states that the absence of a performance advantage is no defence.

In Malaysia, Ferrari went to great lengths to cover the barge boards at every opportunity when the cars were in the pits. Then, in qualifying, Irvine and Schumacher ran only eight of their permitted dozen laps, and when FIA scrutineers came to check the cars afterwards they could not, as they had apparently already been dismantled. That might suggest that Ferrari wished to protect an advantage, but such secrecy is, in fact, common practice. The subsequent claim by their sporting director, Jean Todt, that they had been passed by scrutineers in Germany and Malaysia is a red herring, since competitors must ensure that their cars comply at all times with the regulations.

In every recent instance in which teams have appealed against exclusion for technical infringements the appeals have failed, even when the mistake has been inadvertent.

McLaren last night issued a statement which offered its sympathy to Ferrari, but insisted that the decision should be upheld and interpreted in a wider context. "The more important the outcome of a race, the more important it is that the rules are applied consistently and fairly in accordance with the procedures which have been strictly adhered to in the past," it read.

Mika Hakkinen raced under appeal in the 1997 Belgian Grand Prix after McLaren inadvertently used fuel which did not come from the batch homologated specifically for that race. The appeal failed even though the fuel was of identical, legal specification. At Imola, in 1985, Alain Prost's McLaren was excluded from victory in the San Marino Grand Prix, even though the fluid loss that rendered it one kilo underweight only occurred on its slowing-down lap and not before it had taken the chequered flag.

Ferrari is hoping the drivers, at least, will have their points restored and the penalty will apply only to the team. There has only been one occasion when the FIA has allowed this: after Williams and Benetton infringed fuel regulations in Brazil in 1995. That separation of drivers and teams no longer applies. Ferrari, which vehemently opposed the original ruling, may now cling desperately to the rider which reads "except in exceptional circumstances" at their appeal, which will be heard in Paris on Friday.

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