When Benetton left an FIA Court of Appeal on September 7, it brought to an end a series of controversies that had raged throughout the summer
On the surface, August promised mild relief for Benetton, the potential consequences of Michael Schumacher’s appeal against his two-race ban nothwithstanding. In the wake of the controversy fuelled by the flames in the Hockenheim pit lane, Schumacher’s Hungaroring victory (MOTOR SPORT last month) appeared to have restored a degree of calm.
Furthermore, just before the Belgian Grand Prix, Renault confirmed the longawaited news that it was to supply its treasured engines to Benetton from 1995. . .and that the Enstone team would receive parity with Williams in terms of technical developments.
At Spa, just two days before Schumacher’s appeal was due to be heard in Paris, the German further lightened his team’s mood with another emphatic victory, at a circuit where many felt Damon Hill’s Renault V10 might confer an advantage. . .
Schumacher and Hill had long left Francorchamps when Benetton’s latest trauma became public knowledge.
Post-race scrutineering revealed that the Jabroc skidblock (or ‘plank’, as they have become known) beneath Schumacher’s Benetton did not comply with the technical regulations, Article 3.3 of which demands that the blocks should be 10mm deep, although teams are allowed a 10 per cent wear rate during the course of a Grand Prix. Schumacher’s plank, however, was as thin as 7.4mm at its leanest point. The stewards indicated that the discrepancy was not a consequence of Schumacher’s lap 19 spin at Pouhon, when he had traversed a kerb, for that damage was clearly marked to the rear of the skidblock, and the area which infringed was towards the front.
This was a problem of an altogether different nature to those which had gone before. Use of launch control earlier in the season had not been proven, nor could it be. There remained doubt about whether or not the team had been given permission to remove the fuel filter at Hockenheim. But this was black and white. Intentional or otherwise, it was a transgression, although Benetton denied that. The team referred to a ‘technical problem’ that had afflicted Schumacher’s car between his first and second pit stops, and pointed to the fact that los Verstappen’s sister car, which had been set up the same, complied with the regulations.
The potential benefit to Schumacher? The conclusions varied from engineer to engineer. One estimated that the German might have gained, at best, one tenth of a second per lap had his car been running 1.6mm lower than the opposition. Another proposed that the gain would be rather greater than that given modern F1 cars’ sensitivity to ride height adjustments. The absence of dry weather running prior to the race had left teams with a problem of course. Race trim would largely be a question of guesswork. As Williams Technical Director Patrick Head pointed out: “Remember that for every pound per square inch less in the tyres at maximum speed the car runs two millimetres lower. If the pace car comes out, for example, there will be a pressure drop of around three pounds per square inch, so on the straight the car will run six millimetres lower. You’ve got to allow for this when you’re setting the car up.
“You could take a risk and hope that the pace car doesn’t come out, and set the car up with a five millimetre ride height. You might get away with it, and then again you might not.”
Naturally, Benetton immediately appealed the decision, Technical Director Ross Brawn pointing out that Formula One’s Technical Working Group had originally wanted plank legality to be assessed according to whether or not it was still within 90 per cent of its starting weight, which Schurnacher’s was.
After Spa, rulings for and against Schumacher and Benetton came thick and fast. On Tuesday August 30, the appeal against a two-race ban in the wake of the Silverstone black-flag incident was rejected. The World Championship leader would thus not be eligible to participate in either the Italian or Portuguese Grands Prix.
Eight days later, Benetton’s appeal against the Spa exclusion was likewise rejected, thereby confirming that Schumacher’s lead over Hill was just 21 points, rather than the 35 it would have been had the appeal succeeded. And with Schumacher missing the next two races, there was every chance of that advantage being diminished yet further by the time he returns to the cockpit. Indeed, Benetton’s worst fears were realised as Hill won at Monza to reduce the gap to 11.
On a brighter note, however, the team was absolved from responsibility for the Hockenheim inferno. Respected lawyer George Carman OC’s presentation claimed three vital pieces of evidence in Benetton’s favour: the fuel filter had been removed by a junior employee, without the prior knowledge of the team management: Benetton had made no attempt to disguise the absence of the filter, even though it had ample opportunity to do so; refuelling equipment supplier Intertechnique had delivered, by fax, a document which apparently authorised the Larrousse team to remove the filter as long ago as May. It was said that the latter was instrumental in persuading the aforementioned junior official to remove the filter, though subsequently it appeared more likely that all this letter had said was that if the fuel filter was to be removed, then a packing O-ring of specific thickness must be used. Many F1 observers took the view that this did not consititute permission of any sort.
Later, FIA President Max Mosley would admit that the decision not to penalise Benetton was taken “in the interests of the sport, and in fairness to the other teams who wanted a decision.” He said the World Council would otherwise have had to conduct a long investigation and only decide the matter on October 19.
He admitted that “maybe Benetton and McLaren (in the dock on a separate matter pertaining to alleged use of an automatic upchange facility at Imola see Diary) were a bit lucky this time. Maybe we were too easy on Wednesday though I do not think we were but that is the end”.
From now on, Mosley said, “we will be ruthless.”
Thus ended a sordid series of events which had diminished the sport’s stock in the public eye. Benetton had not been excluded from the World Championship and, as Damon Hill’s Monza victory confirmed, it set up a straight two-way fight to enliven the closing stages of the championship, starting at Jerez on October 16.
However, although the external politics had been resolved, the absence from Monza of Schumacher and his advisors, and the German’s apparent refusal to test at Silverstone the following week, were clear indications that, internally, the team’s future was far from settled. . . D.J.T./.SA.