What really happens at the FIA

26/05/2008
NEWS STORY

It is well known there are many skeletons in F1's closet but few rarely rise. The recent scandal surrounding FIA president Max Mosley has now been the catalyst for bringing one such skeleton to life. The cat is now out of the bag and it's not only Mosley who may be worried.

The story in question appears in today's Sunday Express newspaper and comes from the 'vault' of Pitpass' business reporters Chris Sylt and Caroline Reid. We all know about what Mosley has been getting up to in recent months and, presumably his visit to the 'dungeon' at the end of March wasn't the first. But what about Mosley's professional behaviour over these years? Sylt and Reid's story takes us back to the days of when Mosley had just got his feet in the door at the FIA.

Back then Mosley wasn't even as accustomed to the way the FIA operates as he is now yet the way he acted was surprising to say the very least and it didn't involve whips or hookers. In fact, it's a sports story through and through which cuts right to the core of F1's governance. As many have said, Mosley should be judged on his professional conduct not his private life so let's fire away.

The year was 1994 and the date the 31 July: the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim The picture on the cover of Benetton mechanic Steve Matchett's book 'The Mechanic's Tale' is worth a thousand words. A fireball had just ripped through the Benetton team's pits soon after Jos Verstappen had pulled in and Matchett's book cover shows him staggering through it. Five mechanics and Verstappen suffered burns but thankfully walked away with their lives.

The FIA was soon on the case saying in a statement on 10 August that the fuel spillage, which started the fire, was caused by a valve in its refuelling rig failing to close due to the presence of a "foreign body." Crucially, the FIA added that it believed this foreign body reached the valve because a filter designed to eliminate this risk "had been deliberately removed."

The lack of the filter increased the fuel flow rate by an estimated 12.5% giving a one-second saving over an eight-second pit stop. Michael Schumacher, Benetton's star driver and the sport's great hope after the death of Ayrton Senna earlier in the season, was leading the championship by a massive 27 points by the time of the German GP.

Benetton claimed its innocence in a statement saying that it removed the filter "with the full knowledge and permission of the FIA." Its boss Flavio Briatore added "we have proof and we could prove it in court if we had to." The FIA denied this saying in a statement on 11 August that "permission was certainly not given" and Benetton was summoned before a disciplinary hearing of its World Council. The FIA's statement concluded that Benetton "face sanctions ranging from a reprimand to their disqualification, which could mean their exclusion from Formula One."

Mosley was chairman of the World Council hearing which took place on 7 September and later said of his position "I was in a completely neutral capacity." And quite sensible this is too. However, it's what took place the night before the hearing that staggers.

Sylt and Reid's story in the Sunday Express quotes a letter in their possession, which comes straight from Mosley's advisers, revealing that Mosley met with Benetton's barrister, George Carman QC, in a bar the night before the hearing and "gave Mr Carman his view that it was best...not to seek to blame any FIA personnel." So much for the neutrality of the World Council chairman who, of course, just happened to also be the FIA president. But it gets even better.

At the hearing the following day, Carman followed Mosley's advice and pleaded guilty saying that a junior employee was to blame for removing the filter. Benetton got off without any punishment at all and Mosley attributed this directly to the fact that Benetton pleaded guilty. "The moment that Benetton pleaded guilty, the situation changed. Instead of being out to [prosecute] Benetton, we listened to what they had to say [in mitigation]," he said after the hearing.

Given that Schumacher ended up winning the World Championship over Britain's Damon Hill by just one point, any punishment that the World Council might have meted out, had they been out to prosecute, could well have led to Hill being crowned World Champion. This could have put Hill's Williams team on an even firmer financial footing since, as the story points out, turnover, primarily comprised of sponsorship, at Williams increased by just 1% the following year in contrast to a 20% rise at Benetton. One wonders what Frank Williams and Patrick Head have to say about this revelation.

Before writing the article Sylt put the details of the incident to Hill who would not comment on his career but did say that "the FIA should solely be responsible for policing and enforcing the Formula One regulations fairly, transparently and without bias. That's exactly what it should do." Crucially, Hill added "in the past it's been felt that that's been hard to see."

How could this tale get any more surprising? Well, Sylt and Reid's article goes on to reveal that Mosley, a trained barrister himself, wasn't alone at the meeting in the bar. Despite Benetton's barrister being there, the FIA's own barrister, the part-time racing commentator Ian Titchmarsh, was not. The letter in Sylt's hands reveals that "it never occurred to Mr Mosley that there was anything improper in agreeing to meet as suggested." So who suggested the meeting then?

Carman, who had never before acted in a World Council disciplinary hearing, wanted to know how it worked. According to the letter, and also according to Carman's son Dominic - an old friend of Sylt, George Carman requested the meeting. But he didn't ask Mosley to the meeting. Instead, the letter explains that "Mr Mosley was asked if he would meet Mr Carman by Mr Bernie Ecclestone." The third person present at the meeting was Ecclestone who, of course, also sits on the World Council.

Former F1 team principal Eddie Jordan has said that Ecclestone "was keen to get a German driver into F1 to bring in TV money from that country." Financial documents released by Ecclestone's company in 1999 point out this relationship in blunt terms: "it is possible to observe a correlation between the popularity of the Championship in the Federal Republic of Germany in recent years and Michael Schumacher's success in the Championship.

F1's multi-year television deal with the German RTL station is now one of the biggest-paying in the sport at an estimated $190m and Ecclestone's family trust has made an estimated $1.3bn from stakes in his F1 company being sold to Morgan Grenfell, the investment banking arm of Deutsche Bank, and German media firm EM.TV.

Former F1 champion Jackie Stewart told Sylt that to prevent the kind of meeting Mosley had in the bar before the hearing, the FIA should "get rid of him." He adds that the FIA should be completely restructured since "the manner in which he is behaving is not correct for him to be president. His decision making process has not been good." Former Minardi team boss, Paul Stoddart, concurs. "Broadly speaking, I agree with Jackie's comments. The FIA does need restructuring and the organisation cannot continue with Max Mosley as its President, since as goods go, he is simply too badly damaged."

Mosley is now pinning his hopes on another eminent barrister, Anthony Scrivener QC, who has been appointed by the FIA to see whether there is any truth in the allegations of there being a Nazi theme to his romp.

Scrivener's findings will be available to the FIA members when they vote on Mosley's future as president next month and this latest revelation will give them even more food for thought. What more about Mosley and Ecclestone's operations could come out before then? Pitpass hears that the doors to Sylt and Reid's vault haven't yet closed....

Article from Pitpass (http://www.pitpass.com):

Published: 26/05/2008
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