Formula One dispensed its peculiar brand of justice yesterday when Michael Schumacher was found guilty of deliberately turning into Jacques Villeneuve at the Grand Prix of Europe, but escaped without a ban or a fine, while Williams and McLaren were cleared of colluding in the same race.
The biggest surprise, however, was that anyone should be surprised by the outcome.
Sweeteners all round. You can't get fairer than that.
The verdict on Williams and McLaren was obvious once the decision on Schumacher had been announced at a World Council meeting of the sport's international governing body, the FIA, in Slough yesterday. It served to confirm suspicions the two cases were linked by more than the event at Jerez.
A smokescreen created by the leaked tapes of pit-to-driver conversations during the grand prix and allegations of a Williams-McLaren conspiracy to influence the title contest had apparently worked. Ferrari, said to have been involved with senior Formula One officials in the release of the tapes, were concerned with ensuring the availability of their No 1 driver for the start of next season and that was duly achieved.
Max Mosley, president of the governing body, a lawyer and skilled politician, said that to ban Schumacher from races next season would have been "futile". Instead, the 28-year-old German was stripped of his runner-up position in the championship and committed to participate in a road safety campaign to be organised by the FIA and the European Commission next year.
Many observers remain convinced Schumacher and Ferrari, major attractions in the Formula One show, have been given preferential treatment and that Mosley and his cohorts have given a fresh meaning to the term "Grand Prix Circus."
Such distinguished figures as Jackie Stewart, three times world champion and now a team principal, had called for Schumacher to be banned. But Mosley said: "Although the act was apparently deliberate, it was instinctive and not premeditated."
He said the 24-strong council had considered a ban, but decided it would serve no purpose. "It would not be a deterrent in any sense because there is not a driver who would not do the same in 1998 if it meant being banned for races in 1999 but winning the championship in 1998."
He claimed that had Schumacher taken Villeneuve out of the race the judgement would have been the same, thus handing the title to the Canadian.
Mosley said: "It's still a very serious matter and it's a major penalty we have imposed. Schumacher did the wrong thing, obviously, but while he may be one of the greatest drivers of all time he is a human being and every now and then he will make a mistake. He admitted he did it deliberately but instinctively. Had he thought about it for one second he would have allowed Villeneuve through."
The incident revived memories of Schumacher's infamous clash with Damon Hill and Adelaide three years ago, but Mosley insisted: "That was a different type of accident."
Schumacher presented a suitably contrite countenance and claimed he had not got off lightly. The world champion of 1994 and 1995 said: "For me it's quite a tough decision losing my second place because for Ferrari to have second place in the championship means something. But I have to admit I made a mistake and I do accept the penalty.
"The last couple of weeks have been tough for me, not having won the championship when I was confident I could do so. I had some sleepless nights. I did not want to admit at the time what I had done, but I am human, I can make mistakes. I never expected a ban because the accident happened in 1997. The people involved in the situation see it far less dramatically than the press. I saw Jacques after the race and we had a drink together. We had a good relationship and that has not changed."
Schumacher said he would have been willing to involve himself in a road safety campaign even had he not been required to, but casting him in the role of model driver for the world's young invited further ridicule on the authorities. Mosley responded: "His presence will attract the attention of people, especially young people, to wear seatbelts."
The punishment baffled Damon Hill. The Englishman had sat with the other drivers before the fateful race and listened to Mosley's warning that anyone who transgressed would be dealt with severely.
Hill said last night: "It doesn't sound as serious a punishment as we were led to believe by Max before the race. This just doesn't seem to match up. As for Michael's explanation that it was instinctive, well it's also an instinctive thing not to do things in that way. Having his points taken away is like having your rubbish taken away from you. The points this year are of no interest at all to him."
Nikki Lauda, the three-times former world champion, argued that Schumacher had been dealt with harshly. "It's a brutal decision," Lauda said. "I'm surprised because Schumacher, until Jerez, had had a good season in difficult conditions. It seems brutal to punish a mistake like this. I fear that if this type of decision becomes commonplace then people will lose interest in motor sport because spectacular manoeuvres will effectively be outlawed. From now on, every overtaking move is a risk."
Mosley rejoined his colleagues to consider the Williams-McLaren case, and re-emerged to announce they had been cleared. It had been alleged they conspired to assist Villeneuve, who in turn allowed McLaren's Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, through to take first and second places.
Mosley said: "The World Council is quite satisfied there was no arrangement between Williams and McLaren to fix the outcome. What did happen was that Williams approached McLaren and several other teams asking them not to interfere in the fight between Villeneuve and Schumacher and this they agreed to do.
"When it came to the end of the race, Williams' sole concern was that Villeneuve should finish in the points which was all he needed to do to win the title and they reminded him of this and were desperate he should not fight the McLarens in his damaged car. This scenario is very rare.
"It's an extraordinary set of circumstances to have the leading two racing wheel-to-wheel in the last race but I can believe quite sincerely there was no arrangement to fix the race."
The verdict of the president `Apparently deliberate, but instinctive and not premeditated' Max Mosley on Schumacher's collision with Villeneuve
`There is no driver competing in 1998 who would not be ready to accept the ban in 1999 if he could win the championship in 1998. It would not be a deterrent in any sense' Mosley on why it would be `futile' to ban Schumacher in 1998
`I think it is perfectly clear that the race in Jerez was not fixed and no Formula One race has ever been fixed' Mosley
`Finishing second in the FIA championship is an amazing achievement and to have it taken away is a serious punishment' Mosley
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