MPH: Ferrari's FIA power unit settlement - what does it mean?

Mark Hughes
Ferrari's engine in the SF90 car ahead of the 2019 Spanish Grand Prix

Rivals raised suspicions over Ferrari's 2019 engine, here at the Spanish GP

Getty

A quite extraordinary and unexpected press release from the FIA last Friday stated:

“The FIA announces that, after thorough technical investigations, it has concluded its analysis of the operation of the Scuderia Ferrari Formula 1 Power Unit and reached a settlement with the team. The specifics of the agreement will remain between the parties.

“The FIA and Scuderia Ferrari have agreed to a number of technical commitments that will improve the monitoring of all Formula 1 Power Units for forthcoming championship seasons as well as assist the FIA in other regulatory duties in Formula 1 and in its research activities on carbon emissions and sustainable fuels.”

This went off like a grenade in the F1 world. There are so many implications to that very pointed wording. But the first question is why the FIA chose to release it at all.

The voluntary publicising of its existence suggests that there is indeed some conflict between Ferrari and the FIA

Following queries and suspicion from Ferrari’s rivals last year that it was deriving its power advantage by exceeding the maximum fuel flow but inducing the FIA fuel flow sensor to give a falsely low reading, the governing body had already announced late last season that for 2020 a second sensor would be mandated, one with a random frequency a team would have no access to. Thereby if the first sensor gave a different reading to the second one, the cheat would be instantly apparent.

It was generally assumed this was the end of the matter – i.e. we can’t find any direct evidence Ferrari was doing this, but just in case that is what was happening, here’s an additional bit of hardware that will make it impossible. But that’s not the way the FIA has chosen to go.

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Why has the governing body chosen to issue a release that is at best embarrassing to Ferrari? An FIA, what’s more, headed by Jean Todt who is notoriously consensual and keen to avoid controversy in his FIA President role.

The wording stops short of confirming Ferrari was indeed cheating. But only just. The fact that ‘a settlement’ was reached implies the FIA felt something was amiss and that Ferrari understood it was compromised.

Perhaps it couldn’t be definitively proven, but the evidence was damning? But a settlement is one thing, a publicly-declared settlement quite another. This smacks of two things: that the settlement was an alternative to a legal case, with Ferrari refusing to accept a sporting penalty and threatening to challenge any such ruling.

That the FIA was not prepared to simply cave to Ferrari’s position by sweeping it under the carpet, which would seem to have been the easiest immediate course of action, even if setting an uncomfortable precedent for future transgressions. We may not know the specifics of the agreement but the voluntary publicising of its existence (by the FIA) when it could have remained behind closed doors suggests that there is indeed some conflict between Ferrari and the FIA.

Why might the FIA have adopted such an aggressive position, one so untypical of Todt? Could it be that one or more rivals pressured the governing body into it? By threatening to go legal if the FIA didn’t apply some sort of penalty? In such a scenario, the public announcement of ‘an agreement’ implying there was something amiss would actually be the compromise. It would be an alternative to a sporting penalty which Ferrari wouldn’t accept or to sweeping it under the carpet, which a rival would challenge.

This is just initial speculation, shortly after the event, trying to make sense of this highly surprising development – and we expect to gain further understanding soon enough. But as it stands, this is probably not the end of the matter of what Ferrari might have been doing to subvert the fuel flow regulation last year.

It might just be the beginning of a whole lot of wider-ranging issues. What about those teams which finished below Ferrari in the constructors’ championship, upon which their income depends? Do they get paid the extra? Does Ferrari make up the difference? No, Ferrari would say, because it was not disqualified. Because there was no case for it to be. ‘Oh yes there was,’ the rival might say. ‘You just did a deal to get out of it.’

So might this ‘compromise’ just trigger further arguments and disharmony – or can the teams be brought into line to accepting it by Ross Brawn and Liberty?

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