Will the FIA survive the Briatore verdict?

06/01/2010
NEWS STORY

Last night the FIA released a statement regarding yesterday's court verdict which overruled its ban on Flavio Briatore and Pat Symonds from working in F1. "The Court has rejected the claims for damages made by Mr. Briatore and Mr. Symonds and their claim for an annulment of the FIA's decision," reads the statement which adds that "in particular, the Court did not examine the facts and has not reversed the FIA's finding that both Briatore and Symonds conspired to cause an intentional crash at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix."

You can almost imagine teeth being gritted as keys were hammered while typing the statement. It certainly doesn't sound like something written by the party on the losing side particularly since the court ruled bluntly that the FIA did not have the power to ban Briatore or Symonds since neither man held any licenses to compete. However, as Pitpass' business editor Chris Sylt reports, there may be good reason that the FIA is taking such a hardline response from the outset.

Long before yesterday's verdict, extracts of Briatore's court pleadings were leaked and crucially, they revealed that one of his arguments was that the then FIA president Max Mosley "assumed the roles of complainant, investigator, prosecutor and judge." Yesterday's court judgement upheld this view and stated that "the decision of the World Council was presided over by the FIA president, who was well known to be in conflict with Briatore, with Mr. Mosley having played a leading role in launching the enquiry and its investigation in violation of the principle of separation of the power of the bodies."

In short, one of the reasons for overturning the punishment given to Briatore by the FIA's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) was that Mosley, as FIA president, launched the enquiry into the race-fixing claims and then handed out the punishment as chairman of the WMSC. The icing on the cake was that Mosley had also publicly criticised Briatore which led to the claim that he was "clearly blinded by an excessive desire for personal revenge."

This raises the question as to whether there are other cases of individuals or teams in F1 which had been publicly criticised by Mosley followed by a WMSC investigation into their activities culminating in a punishment. One case which immediately springs to mind is Spygate and if a court were to rule that McLaren's $100m punishment should be overturned then the FIA could well go bust since it has handed the money over to its charity the FIA Foundation. So let's look at how similar these two cases are.

The first common factor is that the FIA was independently alerted to both issues. On 4 July 2007, in the wake of early reports about the Ferrari blueprints being in the possession of its rival, McLaren issued a statement saying that "in order to address some of the speculation McLaren has invited the FIA to conduct a full review of its cars to satisfy itself that the team has not benefited from any intellectual property of another competitor."

Of course the Crashgate scandal was sparked by a tip-off from a disgruntled Nelson Piquet Jr and on 11 September last year Mosley was quoted saying " We get a report from the driver. We have to investigate. When we investigate we find there are certain individual bits of evidence, so we do a very serious investigation. The only reason we've done it is because these things have been put on the table."

The next common factor of course is the FIA launching an enquiry. "The FIA can confirm that an investigation is underway regarding alleged events at a previous world championship race," said a governing body spokesperson on 30 August last year as the Crashgate scandal began to pick up speed. Likewise on 4 July 2007 the statement from the FIA read that "Formula One's governing body has begun its investigation into matters involving the Ferrari and McLaren teams."

Then we get to the issue of "Mr. Mosley having played a leading role in launching the enquiry and its investigation" as the court agreed was the case with Crashgate. Just 12 days after the FIA spokesman confirmed that an investigation into the incident in Singapore was underway, Mosley gave a lengthy Q&A immediately getting stuck in with his opinions on the allegations so far by saying "well, if, and it is a very big if, they [Renault] are guilty, obviously it is very serious indeed...On the one side, one of the bad things about McLaren was that they did not tell the truth, so that went against them. But on the other hand, what is alleged to have been done here, is probably more serious. But to assess that, it is a matter for the world council, it is not really for me to say."

Likewise, three days after the FIA's announcement about the Spygate investigation Mosley was quoted weighing in with his assessment of the situation as it stood. "I hope that, as far as the sport is concerned, it should all be clarified within the next three weeks," he said, adding "I think these things happen in all sports, we'll sort it out." Given that a court has agreed that Mosley "played a leading role in launching the enquiry and its investigation" into Crashgate one can easily imagine the same being said of his role in taking the Spygate investigation forward. Nevertheless, one can also easily imagine that Mosley might challenge this view.

Then comes a crucial common factor between the two cases: the punishment meted out by the WMSC chaired by Mosley. On 13 September 2007 the WMSC ruled that McLaren pay "a fine of USD100 million...within three months from the date of this Decision." And of course, on 21 September last year the WMSC instructed "all officials present at FIA-sanctioned events not to permit Mr. Briatore access to any areas under the FIA's jurisdiction" - a ruling which has since been overturned.

The final common factor is the animosity between the parties. Last year Mosley accused Briatore of being associated with "loonies" over his work with FOTA and the two had "some extremely violent disputes" according to Briatore. It led to the court upholding the view that Mosley "was well known to be in conflict with Briatore." The frosty relationship between McLaren boss Ron Dennis and Mosley extends well beyond last year and it would take more space than there is available to list all the examples of disputes between the two so clearly this parallel too can be drawn.

In a nutshell, whilst only a court could rule whether the Spygate fine too falls foul of the same failings which led to Briatore's punishment being overturned, it seems the precedent set by yesterday's verdict may make the FIA a target of copycat attacks. With no shortage of individuals who have been punished by the WMSC the floodgates may well be open.

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Published: 06/01/2010
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