The San Marino Grand Prix was a significant race, in all sorts of ways. For one thing it showed we're still in for some good Ferrari-vs-McLaren battles this season, even if there is now a danger that St Michael will have the title all wrapped up by Hockenheim. It was our first chance to see a straight fight between the two best teams in F1, all the way to the flag. In Australia the McLarens were clearly quickest, but failed. In Brazil it was much closer, and when Mika Häkkinen's engine let go we were left asking: would Ferrari's ingenious strategy, starting very light on fuel, have been enough to beat Mika on a straight-forward one-stop?
But Imola was different. The frontrunners were all on two-stop strategies, the obvious choice here, and in one of several heart-in-mouth pitlane moments Schumacher and Häkkinen came in together for their first stop. Mika got out again a couple of seconds quicker, which told us that Ross Brawn's tactic was to give Michael enough fuel to keep him going longer. But, even with its heavier fuel load, the Ferrari kept the McLaren in sight. That was crucial to Brawn's plan.
Then Mika came in for his second stop, which was when Michael treated us to one of his banzai efforts, putting together a string of ten-tenths laps to build the cushion. It's what he does best He's a modem F1 driver, and modem F1 is all about pitstop strategies, how you make them work for you, how you use them to put your rivals on the back foot. When he did come in, he needed less fuel, so the stop was quicker. He came funnelling out of the pit lane exit just as Mika was coming onto the start/finish straight And that, really, was when it was all over.
So, on the evidence of Imola, Schumacher in a Ferrari is currently quicker than Häkkinen in a McLaren, but Coulthard in a McLaren is currently quicker than Barrichello in a Ferrari, and McLaren have shown themselves to be inferior to Ferrari in strategy and reliability.
Some years ago a major American car maker, spending multi-million sums on NASCAR, allegedly said: "If we're not winning, they must be cheating." Ron Dennis of McLaren has sometimes been openly vociferous in his views that Ferrari do not always play the game. When Ferrari won back their Malaysian GP victory on appeal last year, after their aerodynamic side panels had been found to be the wrong size, Dennis called it "A black day for motorsport" The disqualification, you will remember, came after the penultimate race of last season. Had it been upheld, it would have rendered the season's climax in Japan a non-event, and it's hard to escape the view that Ferrari were treated with leniency in order to keep the tide fight alive.
Last month there was no leniency for McLaren when the pounding of the Interlagos track bent Coulthard's wing so that it finished the race too low. Their appeal was predictably thrown out. After all, it's early in the season, and an example must be made: everyone else's cars had to cope with the same bumps. No, the leniency was saved for the Brazilian organisers, who'd let their advertising hoardings fall onto the track during qualifying, delaying global TV schedules and, far more seriously, nearly injuring Jean Alesi. They just got a big fine. (One of Bernie Ecclestone's companies has a financial interest in the Brazilian GP.)
All of this — disqualifications, appeals, fines and accusations of cheating — was front of mind at Imola, for FIA President Max Mosley chose this race to call a press conference. He assured himself of headlines around the world when he accused an un-named team of using a form of the banned traction control last year, and said there was a "culture of cheating in Formula One" which he has vowed to eradicate.
A cynic might respond that, if he succeeds, he will be first to do so, for cheating in motor sport is almost as old as the sport itself. F1 adopted a minimum weight limit in 1961, and before long we had heavy wings bolted on after a qualifying lap, watercooled brakes with self-evacuating tanks, and even heavyweight crash-helmets at driver weigh-ins. But I applaud Mosley's determination to ensure that F1 remains, to use a horribly inapposite cliché, a level playing field. His is a daunting task: the same competitive drive that makes a racing car designer great also makes him want to push the envelope, to exploit the rules to the maximum. A clever racing car is one that manages to go faster within a prescribed set of rules — and, by definition, explores the limits of those rules better than the others.
And the ways to go close to, or outside, those rules are no longer simple absolutes that can be measured, like a car that is lighter, or an engine with bigger capacity. We're now living in a world of electronic science, of computer software of almost unimaginable complexity. Most of us broadly understand what engine mapping is: but think about ten separate three-dimensional maps, one for each cylinder in a V10 engine, and then superimpose on each of those maps several more maps to cater for different parameters, and you begin to see how impossible it must be for an independent body like the FIA to try to regulate what F1 teams and engine manufacturers are doing.
Within this complexity, the tough thing is drawing the line between exploiting the rules, and breaking the rules. Colin Chapman always used to reckon the race started the day you got the regulations, and his fertile brain was always hunting out ways of making the rules say what he wanted them to. If they impose limitations on the movement of your car's chassis, why not build a car with two chassis — as he did with the Type 88 in 1981. It was outlawed. The rule makers never foresaw a car with a big cooling fan that also just happened to provide downforce, until the fertile mind of Gordon Murray came up with the Brabham BT46 in 1978. It was, arguably, within the rules when he built it; so, after it won its first race with ease, the rules had to be changed to exclude it. If not, F1 would have consisted of a grid-full of fan cars within weeks.
But these initiatives were visible: the designer produced the new car, and then set about arguing that it was legal. You can't see software. Traction control is impossibly hard to police, so why doesn't the FIA save itself a lot of trouble and simply let them do it?
Mosley's answer is unequivocal. In his view there are three fundamental skills involved in getting a racing car round a race track as fast as possible: steering the car, using the brakes, and using the throttle. (In F1, we've already lost skill in changing gear.) For safety reasons, your average hatchback now has ABS, and soon it'll probably have traction control too. But, playing with 800bhp on a wet racetrack, the great driver rises above the merely good by his throttle control — just as, slowing from 200mph into a slippery hairpin, he does so by his ability to balance maximum braking with adhesion.
It's all part of the old argument that, if there were no limitations on driver aids, a clever (and rich) team could build a car in which the inputs of the driver became unimportant. F1 would be merely a contest of technology, like a race between radio-controlled model aircraft. And, whatever you feel about that, it wouldn't bring the world's billions to their TV screens on Sunday afternoons. They want to watch heroes at work, to understand why Häkkinen is quicker than Coulthard, or marvel when Jenson Button-outqualifies Ralf Schumacher.
So Mosley is right, and deserves our support. His first move is to ban pit-lane speed limiters, because it is thought at least one team has adapted these perfectly legal devices to provide an element of traction control. Other changes will be forced through, too, but what's ultimately required is trust and co-operation between the teams and the FIA.
Clever people will always find new ways to cheat, and perhaps they won't get caught: but, with the stakes so high, the rewards of victory so vast, and the costs of defeat so crushing, whenever one team cheats, everyone else will feel constrained to follow. The disease is contagious, like the use of performance-enhancing drugs in athletics. If F1 is generally thought to be a fix and a farce, if it is perceived as a sort of wrestling on wheels, those watching billions will reach for their channel-changers. The money will ebb away, and the goose will no longer lay the golden eggs. F1 will die unless it can continue to be a contest of skill and courage won by the best driver in the best car — not by the best software programmer.