Byline: Kevin Eason in Paris
MICHAEL SCHUMACHER and his Ferrari team yesterday escaped severe punishment for causing the biggest uproar in recent Formula One history with a penalty he will be able to pay from petty cash. The FIA, motor racing's govern-ing body, imposed a fine of $1 million (about Pounds 714,000) on Schumacher, his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, and Ferrari for the debacle at the Austrian Grand Prix on May 12.
Half the fine was suspended with the rest to be paid immediately and split equally between the three -which means that Schumacher will have to find about Pounds 120,000 from his annual Ferrari salary of Pounds 22.5 million, less than a third of his Pounds 430,000-a-week pay packet, while Barrichello, the innocent party in the episode, will have to pay up for being ordered not to win.
The FIA turned out to be impotent to act against the team orders that destroyed the result of the race in Austria, as Barrichello was ordered to move aside and let Schumacher take victory almost at the chequered flag. The torrent of jeers as a humiliated Schumacher pushed Barrichello on to the top step of the podium led to widespread calls for the team to be severely reprimanded, but when it came to the time to make a decision, the FIA was found wanting.
The World Council gathered in the plush, marbled halls of the Automobile Club de France on the Place de la Concorde here and decided that it had no idea what to do about team orders and, instead, levied the $1 million fine as punishment for the farcical podium ceremony where an embarrassed Wolfgang Schussel, the Chancellor of Austria, was left not knowing to whom he should hand the winner's trophy.
Instead, the millions of angry fans, who made up the FIA's biggest postbag after the race, have been asked for their ideas while it sets up a working group to study the implications of banning teams ordering their drivers to switch positions.
Max Mosley, the FIA president, admitted that he entered the meeting looking for heavy sanctions, but was persuaded there was little that could be done because team orders are not outlawed and, even if they were, could still be carried out in secret with extra pitstops or faked breakdowns.
"It is easy to see what is wrong, but it is not so easy to see what is right," he said. "What happened was wrong from a sporting point of view. Millions of people were annoyed but it would not be right to sanction Ferrari with the rules as they are. You sat there watching that race feeling irritated but impotent because we don't have a rule telling them they cannot do this."
After 50 years condoning the manipulation of results -going back to the 1950s and the great Juan Manuel Fangio -the FIA had no way of legitimately preventing Ferrari from carrying out one of the most cynical acts seen in a sporting event. Barrichello had dominated the entire Austrian race weekend only to be denied by a team anxious that Schumacher should take maximum points towards his fifth World Championship title.
Ferrari's simple defence was that they were allowed to issue team orders for the benefit of their title campaign under the rules and Mosley had sympathy with their view after losing the championship at the final race of the season three times.
But many will believe that attitude flies in the face of the FIA's code 151c, which calls for penalties for teams that carry out "acts prejudicial to the interest of competition". Ferrari might also have had the right to go to law to ensure the result remained in place if the FIA had stripped Schumacher of the Austrian points or even implemented a race ban.
In the event, the FIA did nothing.
The idea that the public should rescue the FIA by coming up with ideas to ban team orders seems ludicrous. No other world governing body has canvassed the terraces for proposals to rule the sport.
Mosley admitted: "The man in the pub might not find this so easy. At the moment, none of us can think of a way of solving the problem. We are throwing it open to find a better way of running this aspect of motor sport. As long as teams have two cars fighting for the title, this will happen. But we understand why people are upset, which is why we will listen to what they say."
Maybe the pub judges will come up with novel ideas, or even adapt the FIA's own rules on driving behaviour, such as sending Schumacher and Barrichello ten places back on the grid after qualifying for the British Grand Prix in ten days' time. That would have been a punishment that challenged Ferrari to use their dominating new car to win and, at the same time, would give fans a race to savour. The FIA hopes to have working proposals by the end of this season, which could mean that new laws will be in place for 2003.
The British Grand Prix next year will return to its original date at the end of July, for the first time in three seasons. The FIA calendar for 2003 has the Silverstone race in its traditional slot on July 20, after the French Grand Prix.
Question time: Schumacher and Barrichello face the press after the hearing at the Automobile Club de France yesterday. Photograph by CLEMENT MARIN