Tolerance driven beyond the limit The Ferrari fiasco: Showdown in Suzuka assured as Formula One's integrity takes another battering

David Tremayne reports on the reinstatement of a favoured team

The reinstatement of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher as the winner and runner-up in last weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix came as the least surprising development of the 1999 Formula One season in Paris yesterday. But the kicker was the restoration to Ferrari of all of their points, too. A split decision, with the drivers getting their points back but Ferrari losing theirs and also being fined for running cars which did not comply with the regulations, had been widely predicted.

The reinstatement of Eddie Irvine and Michael Schumacher as the winner and runner-up in last weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix came as the least surprising development of the 1999 Formula One season in Paris yesterday. But the kicker was the restoration to Ferrari of all of their points, too. A split decision, with the drivers getting their points back but Ferrari losing theirs and also being fined for running cars which did not comply with the regulations, had been widely predicted.

Now, heading for the final race in Japan next weekend, Irvine is once again four points ahead of Mika Hakkinen in the drivers' championship, and Ferrari are a similar margin ahead of McLaren in the constructors'. The scene is thus set for a winner-take-all showdown that will set the seal on a controversial and unpredictable season which has seen the balance of power ebb and flow between the Ferrari and McLaren teams.

"I am delighted with the outcome," said Ferrari's president Luca di Montezemolo. "The judges were diligent and ensured a fair hearing for all parties, and their decision is a complete vindication of our sporting director Jean Todt and the technical skills of Ross Brawn and his team at Ferrari. Now we can go to Japan and win the championship."

If successful, Irvine will give Ferrari their first drivers' championship for 20 years. The last time that he waited so anxiously on the outcome of a hearing at the headquarters of FIA in Paris was back in his days as F1's enfant terrible in 1994, when all that an appeal against a one-race ban achieved was to have the penalty tripled. This time, Irvine's aspirations for the World Championship rested on the deliberations of five independent judges tasked with assessing the justice of his exclusion, but history is littered with the debris of failed appeals to FIA.

The only recorded success came in 1995, when Schumacher and Benetton, and David Coulthard and Williams, were reinstated in the Brazilian GP following exclusion for fuel irregularities. On that occasion neither team got their points back, however. The rule has been changed since then to prevent recurrence of a split decision, but the relevant passage of Article 152 of the International Sporting Code says: "Points should not be deducted separately from drivers and competitors save in exceptional circumstances".

Five independent judges deliberated for four hours in Friday's tribunal, hearing evidence from the McLaren and Stewart teams (who stood to gain if the exclusion was upheld) as well as from Ferrari's lawyers, Henry Peter and Jean-Paul Martell. Ultimately, they based their extraordinary decision to restore points not only to the drivers but also to the team, on the Ferrari engineers' explanations of precisely how they measured the barge boards along the side of the car. These had been the bone of contention ever since FIA's technical delegate Jo Bauer had discovered the apparent irregularity in Malaysia two hours after Irvine and Schumacher had left Hakkinen a beaten third. According to Ferrari, their own measurement rendered the cars legal, whereas Bauer suggested they failed to comply with the regulations by 10 millimetres.

In revealing the decision yesterday, Max Mosley, the FIA president, said: "Ferrari were just within the tolerance permitted. It was a millimetre or less on each dimension. They were absolutely on the limit." When asked why the stewards had reached one conclusion one day and a panel of lawyers a different one six days later, he said: "Engineers will know a specification, but lawyers will show inconsistencies."

The judges gave three grounds for allowing the appeal.

1. All dimensions of the turning vane (barge board) were within the 5mm tolerance allowed by the relevant regulations, provided the vane was properly attached to the car.

2. The 10mm dimension referred to in the technical delegate's report resulted from a method of measurement which was not necessarily in strict conformity with the regulations;

3. The measuring equipment available to the FIA scrutineers at the Malaysian Grand Prix was not sufficiently accurate to call into question Ferrari's statement, that the turning vane was properly attached to the car.

The judges' ruling has sent shockwaves through the sport, and led to thinly veiled accusations from rival teams that FIA favours Ferrari. An FIA representative denied that this was the case and spoke of a victory for common sense.

The whole affair has been an embarrassing own goal for Formula One, though not, after all, for Ferrari. But this is the era when any news is good news if it makes people talk about you. The 430 million fans in 130 countries around the world who watch F1 on television will breathe profound sighs of relief that the Great Showdown will happen after all in Suzuka. But the question remains: where does this leave the sport?

McLaren's chief Ron Dennis described the outcome as "ludicrous". He went on: "Are we disappointed? No. Are we surprised? Not really. We believe the push now for our sport has inevitably become quite commercial. What has actually occurred is that through very heavy scrutiny of our rules a way has been found to provide a reason for the appeal to be upheld. The first thing to say is that it is a bad day for the sport.

"I am convinced that Ferrari's miscalculation was a mistake. But even if this oversight had had a negative influence on the performance of the car that is immaterial, because the regulations state the car must comply. That is a rule which has been rigorously enforced over many years of grand prix racing."

Earlier in the week, Dennis pointed out that the timing of the offence should not be a factor. "Whilst we understand the sympathy and requests for leniency, the fact that the outcome of the Malaysian Grand Prix can decide this year's World Championship is irrelevant. The more important the outcome of a race, the more important that the rules are applied consistently and fairly in accordance with the procedures which have been strictly adhered to in the past," he said.

Dennis has a point. In 1997 McLaren inadvertently used the incorrect - but still kosher - fuel at Spa-Francorchamps. Hakkinen raced under appeal, but the appeal was subsequently turned down and he was excluded. Had that happened in 1998, when he was fighting for the title with Schumacher, would the court of appeal have taken into consideration that its verdict might later in the season affect his chances of the title? It seems unlikely.

It is not difficult to see why McLaren feel aggrieved at yesterday's decision, nor to sympathise. In the short-term the sport may have got the instant gratification that most wanted. In the long term the judges' decision may have far-reaching repercussions. Either way, Suzuka will be a cracking race.

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