Benetton in the dock

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Pre-race revelations by the FIA in Hockenheim blew the cloud created by the HA World Council meeting in Paris, a few days earlier, into a storm of controversy that cast doubt on the credibility of the Benetton team’s achievements in the 1994 FIA World Championship. After imposing a two-race ban on Schumacher and upping Benetton’s fine to $500,000 in the wake of the Silverstone black flag incident (MOTOR SPORT last month), the World Motor Sport Council considered a detailed report compiled by FIA Technical Delegate Charlie Whiting that Schumacher’s Benetton might have run in the San Marino GP using an illegal launch control system. The Council eventually decided to impose no penalty after discussing the matter with Liverpool Data Research Associates, the company appointed by the FIA to investigate such irregularities. The official statement from the FIA said: “According to LDRA the best evidence is that Benetton was not using ‘launch control’ (an automatic start system) at the 1994 San Marino GP. Had the evidence proved they were, the World Motor Sport Council would have been invited to exclude them from the World Championship. Given the evidence available, such a course of action would obviously have been wrong.”

The FIA then took the extraordinary step of releasing the full text of Whiting’s report, ostensibly to avoid speculation, though the contents had just the opposite effect. Whiting’s report closed with the observation: “In the circumstances, I am not satisfied in accordance of Article 2.6 of the Formula One Technical Regulations that car number 5 (M Schumacher) complied with the Regulations at all times during the San Marino Grand Prix and 1 therefore submit this matter to the World Council for their consideration.”

At the beginning of the 1994 season FIA President Max Mosley promised ‘Draconian penalties’ on anyone found to transgress the regulations, particularly those banning traction control and auto start systems. And he insisted that the onus was on a team to prove that its cars complied with the rules, not on the FIA to prove that they didn’t.

The effect of the publication of the report was predictable, as the Fl paddock was thrown into a turmoil of speculation.

Some believed that the FIA felt Benetton had been cheating but couldn’t prove it, and had therefore released the report in order to sully a likely victory in the World Championship. Others saw the report as part of a closing trap, as groundwork laid for possible future action against the team if more evidence were to be compiled. Some people also pointed out that McLaren. Ferrari and even Williams have redundant electronic systems in their current software, and that this need not necessarily imply that the intention was to use them, simply that purging them was a time-consuming business. Benetton refuted the allegations strongly, admitting that it had the software but denying that it had been activated for the race, and on Friday Chief Designer Ross Brawn (pictured left) took the hot seat to put forward Benetton’s defence of the allegations. Though he presented his case both plausibly and calmly, it was clear that he had little chance of eradicating totally the suspicion surrounding the team’s methods.

Benetton’s claims that it only used the system in testing were met with derision in the pit lane, as many questioned why one would need it in such circumstances. In its defence, Benetton pointed out that it had tested the system in preparation for 1994, lest the regulations should permit it. The suggestion that, having created the sort of complex programmes that are required, Benetton technicians would not have known that the system could be switched on in seconds using a laptop computer rather than in a laborious process of recompilation were treated similarly. Aficionados zeroed in on the page in the report that said 10 programme options were visible on screen, but LDRA discovered an option 13 which was not visible but could be called up by those in the know if required, simply by positioning the cursor in the correct place and pressing ‘Enter’. Benetton’s explanation was that this was to prevent accidental engagement at races.

The most controversy was raised by the team’s adamant refusal to make its source code (programmes written in special computer languages, and easier for humans to understand than the more familiar machine codes in which computer instructions are traditionally written) available to the FIA so that LDRA could investigate the system. Benetton was asked to do this on May I. but it was July 18 before it finally acceded, citing confidentiality and the need to consult with its technical partners, Ford and Cosworth, before doing so. Interestingly, McLaren has used the same line of defence.

Asked whether any telemetry that a company might be provided with by any team could be tampered with, without such tampering being evident, the LRDA’s Mike Hen nell responded: “Any telemetry could be a simulation. It might not even have come from a car. Telemetry in itself need not be conclusive.” Furthermore, Hennell indicated that it would be hard for any teams to write a special source code capable of destroying parts of the programme in the event of an investigation. “People talk about this sort of technology, and dream up all sorts of models,” he said, “but it’s a lot harder to dc than people think. Also it is very dangerous to have a rogue code wandering about a system on something that travels at 200mph. It could work against the system very easily.”

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