Motor Racing: Benetton to account for missing fuel filter: Investigation into Hockenheim fire results in summons for championship leaders to appear before FIA's world council

THE Benetton-Ford team were involved in another confrontation with the sport's governing body yesterday when FIA summoned them to answer a charge that they deliberately removed a fuel filter before the German Grand Prix on 31 July, which may have caused the frightening conflagration in their pit at Hockenheim.

The world championship leaders, who are already appealing against a dollars 500,000 ( pounds 326,000) fine for a transgression at the British Grand Prix last month, have been ordered to appear before FIA's world council on 19 October. The FIA statement said that a filter, designed to help eliminate the risk of a flash-fire during a refuelling stop, had been deliberately removed from the equipment used by Benetton in Germany.

But a statement from the British-based team yesterday said they had informed the authorities of their intention to remove the filter and had received permission to do so.

FIA said the discovery of the missing filter had been made during the investigation into the cause of the fire involving the Dutchman Jos Vertstappen's car, and that the French manufacturer of the equipment, Intertechnique, had reported the removal of the valve. The valve may have been removed to improve the flow of fuel and speed up the team's pit-stops.

But Benetton, whose No 1 driver Michael Schumacher is leading the world championship standings, said they had initiated their own investigation by an independent company specialising in accidents, and it had concluded that the removal of the filter could not have contributed to the fireball, which engulfed Verstappen's car and resulted in the driver and five crew being treated for minor burns.

FIA's report said the fuel spillage had been caused by a valve failing to close properly because of a foreign body which had reached the valve because a filter had been removed. Benetton said the independent investigation showed there was no evidence of any debris in the valve which could have caused the spillage.

'Benetton concluded the filter was unnecessary and it was removed with the full knowledge and permission of the FIA Formula One technical delegate, Charlie Whiting,' the team said. 'This permission was given on the afternoon of Thursday, 28 July.'

This latest incident, now being couched in technical terms but which could easily have had devastating consequences, continues a troubled summer for the team.

After dominating the first part of the season, Schumacher's run came to an end at Silverstone when the German, and his team, ignored a black flag ordering the driver into the pits. Schumacher had deducted the six points he earned for second place and was handed a two-race suspension while the team were fined dollars 500,000. An appeal enabled Schumacher to appear in his home grand prix but the prospect of a ban remains.

The team were also fined dollars 100,000 recently following the discovery of a 'launch control' device on their car. Although FIA conceded it could not prove the device had been used, it is illegal and punishment was forthcoming.

The Italian Grand Prix scheduled for Monza on 11 September appears unlikely to proceed following the decision yesterday by a local authority to reject the latest safety plan for the circuit.

Lucia Gremmo, Superintendent of Cultural Heritage for the Milan region, rejected a plan under which 123 trees would be felled to widen run- off areas on the Lesmo curves. Environmentalists strongly opposed the plan and chained themselves to the trees.

(Photograph omitted)

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