The Flavio Briatore/FIA case carries deep implications. What the French courts ruled had nothing to do with whether or not Briatore (or Pat Symonds, who was included in the same case) was guilty of cheating at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. All the court said was that the procedure used by the FIA in deciding that they were guilty, and what the subsequent punishment should be, was not legally correct - on two counts.
Firstly, it maintained that having the same body launch an investigation, conduct it and judge it is completely invalid. In other words, the crime may well have been committed, but the punishment was a stitch-up - and not a legally binding one.
Secondly, the FIA did not have the authority to impose a ban on either man because they are not licence holders, and in the FIA's own statutes such a ban can only be applied to licence holders (ie teams or drivers).
The actual decision of the FIA on the guilt of Briatore and Symonds was not annulled by the court, only the process used to arrive at it.
The point about not being able to punish non-licence holders is a shortcoming of the FIA's own statutes. No one would seriously contend that a governing body should not be able to punish participants for cheating, and so a revision of those statutes is probably necessary. But this raises the interesting legal question of whether you can be retried just because the statutes have changed. The 'crimes' were committed under the existing statutes and surely any new statutes cannot be applied retrospectively to them. If they can, the paddock could soon be virtually empty.
But this is a relatively minor point compared to the court's finding about the separation of the launching and conducting of investigation. You cannot be policeman, judge and jury - and that has long been a criticism the governing body's processes have been open to. It's a system that by definition leads you merely to agree with yourself. Because F1 is effectively a private little club with just the facade of a system of law, that conflict hasn't really interfered too much with its running - so long as no one took the FIA's decisions to the real law of the outside world. But Briatore did - and won.
When no one was taking the FIA's authority to external scrutiny, the system meant the governing body could get things done very quickly and effectively. That was fine, so long as that system wasn't being abused. It was an extension of the whole way F1 operated, unburdened by rules and regulations created for the outside world and not really appropriate to the special and fast-moving demands of this extreme sport.
There was a general understanding that participants did not invoke external law. They threatened to from time to time but usually it was a negotiating stance. So long as everyone accepted the facade, it all rubbed along okay. But for this system to remain internal, it required a faith that the FIA's power was not being used for anything other than the interests of the sport. If a belief ever took root that it was being used to settle personal scores, then it would all surely collapse - and the outside world would arrive with some force.
Sadly, this is a belief that did take hold during the latter days of Max Mosley's presidency. It took hold with the 2007 spy scandal and intensified during the ill-natured negotiations over the sport's future last year. Yes, of course someone within the Renault team cheated. There was huge pressure from the parent company to win, otherwise the team was going to be closed that winter.
The deliberate crash was the regrettable way Briatore and Symonds tried to head that off. It was obvious the moment it happened and the FIA was even informed of it by Nelson Piquet Sr. It should have launched an investigation immediately and imposed penalties. Instead, it chose to keep that piece of ammunition for a later day.
As a consequence, F1 is going to have to adopt more of the ways of the outside world.
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