Elf fuels controversy

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Marcus Simmons

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The Brazilian Grand Prix commenced at Interlagos on March 26, and was won in Paris 18 days later. Instead of having shot from the starting blocks, Formula One had, for many, shot itself in the foot.

Michael Schumacher, who, like David Coulthard, was disqualified for running irregular fuel, did not attend the International Court of Appeal. He has seen enough of Paris. In the course of the last nine months the German has twice been disqualified, and also received a two-race ban at the hands of the FIA. It is a losing run more suited to the British downhill ski team than to motor racing’s World Champion.

The prospect of losing a further 10 points was undoubtedly the catalyst for reports of Schumacher’s possible defection to IndyCar. But, for once, his fears were unfounded: his victory, if not his faith, was restored.

An element of myth surrounds the case: Formula One no longer relies on ‘witches’ brews’ which would strip your wallpaper as well as outstripping the opposition. Instead the cars effectively run on 95 octane Euro Super. Gilbert Chapelet, head of Elf’s special fuels department, estimates that the switch to pump fuel has cut the possible performance gain from in the region of 20bhp to 10bhp.

“Sometimes you have the same from your pump as the Formula One cars,” says Michel Bonnet, head of Elf’s marketing department. “But what we have to do is always keep the same specification because of the engine’s mapping and its sensitivity. One fuel station may differ very slightly from another for the motorist, but with Formula One the fuel has to be exactly the same.”

Which is one reason why Elf contends that the difference between the sample it submitted pre-season for FIA homologation, and that used in Brazil and, subsequently, Argentina, was negligible.

Certainly experts could find no evidence to substantiate the claims of Gerhard Berger and Mika Hakkinen that the fuel in any way led to extra-terrestrial performance from the Renault engines.

So why were the Benetton and Williams excluded? Simply because the fuel in their cars did not match the ‘fingerprint’ previously submitted by Elf to the FIA. Unlike Agip and Mobil, both of which gave the FIA fuel from the same batch later used in Brazil, Elf which supplies no fewer than seven teams proferred a sample first, then tried to reconstruct the same blend.

It failed in that bid, but by such a minimal amount that, once correctly re-submitted for homologation, the fuel was deemed legal. “I am not an expert on engines, and the FIA is not an expert in fuel,” shrugs Bonnet. “This is not a precise science there must be a realistic margin of tolerence.”

Why all the fuss? Partly, one suspects, it was the residue of battles past. Partly too, because of the FIA’s desire to demonstrate its ability to police the sport throughout the coming season. The message was acknowledged:

“We desperately need clear, well-defined regulations which we can all understand,” responded Ron Dennis in Argentina.

“It’s very important to have clear rules, people in charge of those rules, and for people to respect those rules,” echoed Luca di Montezemolo, Ferrari’s President.

That respect vanished at the same time as did Ferrari’s healthy lead in the Constructors’ Championship once the Court of Appeal, anxious not to jeopardise any fight for the title, announced its decision to penalise the teams rather than drivers.

“The notion of sport has disappeared from Formula One,” said Ferrari consultant Niki L,auda, bitterly. “I can, aged 46, start to race again. I will race for the team with the biggest budget and, with an illegal car, I will become World Champion and my team will pay for the infractions of the rules…”

The case is now closed. Its legacy, you suspect, has yet to unfold.

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