McLaren wrist slapped in suspended race ban

Formula One team McLaren Mercedes has been waved through by the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) of sanctioning body International Automobile Federation (FIA). Meeting in Paris on Wednesday, the Council undertook to levy a penalty for McLaren,...

Formula One team McLaren Mercedes has been waved through by the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) of sanctioning body International Automobile Federation (FIA).

Meeting in Paris on Wednesday, the Council undertook to levy a penalty for McLaren, whose team manager Dave Ryan and driver Lewis Hamilton lied to race officials about a passing incident in the closing laps of last month's season-opening Australian Grand Prix. Jarno Trulli of Toyota was tricked into passing Hamilton under caution conditions, thereby incurring a penalty that dropped the Italian several places and moved the McLaren driver onto the podium. McLaren was disqualified from the race once evidence, including radio transmissions, was examined by race stewards.

Wednesday, the WMSC governors determined the appropriate punishment for five charges of violating Article 151c of the International Sporting Code, the one that speaks to putting the sport into disrepute in ways such as allowing a competitor to take an unwarranted penalty, was a three-race ban. Councillors promptly suspended the ban, effectively tapping -- not even slapping -- the McLaren wrist. The suspension comes with a 12-month probation period. Councillors maintained they will impose the race ban should further facts emerge.

McLaren facing these charges was freighted with the recent history of having been found guilty of spying after a McLaren employee was found to be in possession of more than 700 pages of confidential Ferrari documents. Then-team principal Ron Dennis at first denied the assertion only to learn his drivers were using information taken from the documents. McLaren wound up with a $100 million fine, largest in sport, and elimination from the 2007 constructors' championship, which the team was on track to win.

Since that dark night in McLaren history, Whitmarsh became team principal, in March, stepped in after the Australia debacle to fire Ryan, and submitted a letter of apology to the Council last week. As the case headed to the Paris court, Dennis, whose association with the FIA was usually prickly, stepped away from the F1 team entirely, leaving the show to Whitmarsh. That approach paid dividends.

"Having regard to the open and honest way in which McLaren Team Principal, Mr Martin Whitmarsh, addressed the WMSC and the change in culture which he made clear has taken place in his organization, the WMSC decided to suspend the application of the penalty it deems appropriate," a statement from the FIA read.

"That penalty is a suspension of the team from three races of the FIA Formula One World Championship. This will only be applied if further facts emerge regarding the case or if, in the next 12 months, there is a further breach by the team of Article 151c of the International Sporting Code."

The statement promised a full explanation of the decision would follow.

The Council made no mention of disgraced world champion Hamilton, whose title defense began with this scandal. The Englishman insisted at the season's second race, in Malaysia, where race stewards followed up on the incident, that he be allowed to hold an extraordinary news conference in the official media center. He proceeded to make a near-tears apology in which he blamed Ryan and claimed the team manager had told him to lie, which, as a good team player, he had done.

"This issue is now behind us," said Mercedes Motorsport vice president Norbert Haug. "Now the sport instead of the politics is in the foreground. This is what the spectators like much better and, honestly, I like it much, much better."

Mercedes, which supplies engines to two other teams besides McLaren -- including series-leading Brawn GP -- and which supplies safety cars and other series support, was seen as unkeen on a threat to McLaren's season.

Formula One commercial rights manager Bernie Ecclestone told the BBC he thought the decision was fair, but when asked if McLaren got off lightly, he said, "probably."

"Good, fair and honest and straight," Ecclestone said of the decision. "I thought Martin was happy with that. He knew there was something wrong."

Whitmarsh, who appeared before the Council alone, went with a strategy of unreserved apology.

"We are aware that we made serious mistakes in Australia and Malaysia, and I was therefore very glad to be able to apologize for those mistakes once again," Whitmarsh said.

FIA president Max Mosley told reporters the difference was Whitmarsh.

"Martin Whitmarsh made a very good impression," Mosley said. "He's obviously absolutely straightforward and wants to work with us. We're all trying to do the same thing, which is to make the championship successful and hope that the best team wins. And I think Martin understands that. The World Council responded accordingly."

Mosley said he, too, thinks the decision fair.

"We think it's entirely fair," he said. "They've demonstrated a complete culture change. It's all different to what it was. And in those circumstances, it looks better to put the whole thing behind us, which is what we've done. Unless there's something similar in the future, that's the end of the matter.

Mosley said he didn't think McLaren got off lightly because they lost all points from Australia. "In the end, there were decisions taken by people involved who are no longer there," he said. "That being the case, it would have been unfair to go on with the matter."

The 2007 scandal was seen as Mosley and Dennis at loggerheads. Mosley indicated Dennis' absence helped the team Wednesday.

"This time, I think they've got the message and they've done a very good job," Mosley said.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Jarno Trulli , Norbert Haug , Lewis Hamilton , Bernie Ecclestone , Martin Whitmarsh
Teams Ferrari , Mercedes , McLaren , Brawn GP