FISA wields a hefty rule-book, accumulated throughout the 20th century by the look of it, and we could almost hear the rustle of pages being turned in the steward's office when Michael Schumacher's Mercedes C11 rolled to a stop near Copse, while qualifying for the BRDC's Silverstone 300-mile race.
At 21 years of age, driving in a World Championship race for the first time, he could hardly be expected to know the rule book intimately. In any case, he was passive when the Sauber team's mechanics found him a gear so that he could go round the complete lap, unfortunately without fastening his seat belts. A greater 'crime' if we must regard it as such, was committed by the team in working on the car at the side of the track. Only the driver may do so, with tools or parts carried in the car.
The steward's, led by Frenchman Alain Bertaut, had no choice but to exclude the Mercedes number 2, and Schumacher personally. The rule book says that exclusion shall follow these infringements, and there was no alternative. Nor was there any alternative when Chamberlain Engineering's Spice was excluded from the Suzuka race for being fuelled at the side of the track during untimed practice.
We question whether the rules are sound. Can it be right to exclude a car, the whole team if there's only one entry, from the entire meeting for such infringements? People aren't hung or transported these days for stealing sheep, and the act of disqualification seems extremely harsh for technical indiscretions in 1990.
Who is punished? The team, of course. The drivers, even if the mistake was none of their doing. The sponsors, who might have legally binding contracts on the teams to appear. The public, people who pay a lot of money for the pleasure of seeing the teams performing at the highest level!
Let the punishment fit the crime. We have said before (the last time, when M. Bertaut fined Eddie Cheever heavily for failing to sign-on at Jerez in 1986) that the rule book has become too big, too onerous and too binding on the stewards. It needs to be expurgated, to have all the 'dead' rules taken out and 'live' ones examined.
Any sensible person might believe that exclusion from a meeting is a fitting punishment for anyone caught cheating. If you run an oversize engine in order to gain unfair advantage, you deserve to be disqualified for a whole year. If you finish a race with a car that's too light, you deserve to be disqualified from the result.(as is the case). If you gain unfair advantage for any reason, the stewards need the powers to reprimand, fine or exclude. Working on a car at the side of the track does not gain the team an unfair advantage. Nor does refuelling a car at the trackside during practice, nor does the failure to do up seat belts. New punishment should be devised.
Teams work very hard to accumulate championship points, and prize these above money. No fine, however large, could hurt Mercedes but the docking of three World Championship points might have a very salutary effect, and would harm nobody's interests but their own. Should the team or driver not have any championship points, the first three to be earned might be forfeited.
Monetary fines might have some place in the scale as well, but many people entertain a feeling of repugnance as the likes of Ayrton Senna are fined umpteen thousand dollars. Would a leading Fl driver notice the difference to his bank balance? And where does the money go anyway? Here again, the forfeiture of points would be a very stiff punishment indeed, accepting that a stiff punishment is what's needed.
In America they do things a little differently. "Don't make a rule unless it's needed, and then not unless it can be enforced" is the general guideline. Stop-and-go penalties seem to be entirely appropriate for misdemeanours on the circuits, passing under yellow flags and so on, and indeed are applied when Group C cars are refuelled quicker than the statutory 60 litres per minute. They save all the arguments, protests and counter-protests because they are arbitary, at the discretion of the stewards.
The steward may not always be right, but he's always the steward!
Until Mauro Baldi's Mercedes rolled to a stop at Stowe Corner on May 20, three years had elapsed since the last engine related retirement for Peter Sauber's team in World Championship racing. It is a significant achievement that brings great credit to the team, and of course to Dr. Hermann Hiereth and his engineers at Untertürkheim.
The sheer reliability of the C8, C9 and C11 cars has been extremely impressive since the programme began in 1986. The first victory for the 5-litre Sauber Mercedes C8 came at the Nürburgring in August 1986, and the last engine failure occurred at Le Mans in June 1987. Rival teams have cheered up sometimes on hearing that the transmissions might not be up to the job (the first events of 1988 put that rumour to rest) or that the latest Bosch Motronic 1.8 management system was hard to tame (the recent result at Monza put that one away), but at Monza the Sauber team achieved its fifteenth victory, all but one established since March 1988.
No manufacturer can afford to be philanthropic where high budget motor racing is concerned. Mercedes goes racing to improve the product and enhance the reputation of its engineering. Results in the past three seasons speak for themselves.
Is progress really being made in Group C? We journalists have rather a lot of data and information made available these days at WS-PC races . . . . so much, in fact, that at Monza I stood by the yellowed office behind the petrol pumps, right by the window where I once waited for results. As darkness fell, the window would open, a hand appear and a results sheet would be issued. Yes, Pedro's win is confirmed! Nowadays racks in air conditioned press rooms are filled with provisional, then official results within an hour of the race ending, and we take the accuracy of the Longines-Olivetti computer service for granted.
What a shock to realise, at Silverstone, that the official sheets were giving grossly inaccurate miles-per-hour information! On one sheet Schlesser's pole-winning speed was given at 92.180 mph, rather less than the true 148.357 mph. On others, Schlesser's new lap record was given as 131.039 mph. It should have been and was 139.50 mph, and since that will stand for all time as the Group C record we hope that Silverstone's history won't short-change him.
Still on the subject of progress, the winning Jaguar's average speed over 480 kms was 128.88 mph, and it's interesting to look back and see that in May 1988 Cheever and Brundle won the race, over 1000 kms, in a Jaguar XJR-9-V12 at 128.63 mph. So this year the turbo model went 440 yards further in each hour, never once breaking the previous Group C lap record.
The Silk Cup team would say that Ferte and Brundle weren't under much pressure once Baldi's Mercedes retired with 60% of the race still to run, and I would agree. Tabulated lap times show that they maintained their speed in the 1-20 to 1-21 bracket until long after the Mercedes had gone, and eased off very slightly only in the last three laps. In other words, they found it easier to maintain a speed similar to that of two years ago, and finished with more fuel in the tank.
Nice for Jaguar. But in that case why were Nissan, Toyota and Porsche on the rack where fuel consumption is concerned? Had these same cars been competing in the race two years ago with today's chassis, tyres, drivers, engine management systems and telemetry, they wouldn't have done any better against the V12 Jaguars than they did against the modern XJR-11.
I'm sure there is a simple answer, but so far no engineer I've talked to has provided it.