Analysis: Formula One Must Tread Carefully

Never mind the closest championship showdown in years and Michael Schumacher's faltering bid for a record sixth Formula One title.

Analysis: Formula One Must Tread Carefully

Never mind the closest championship showdown in years and Michael Schumacher's faltering bid for a record sixth Formula One title.

The hottest topic for the past week has been tread widths, contact patches and, once again, the credibility of the sport.

Tyres are the new talking point, providing the latest bombshell in a season aiming for salvation after taking a pounding last year.

After last year's explosion of outrage over 'team orders', with Ferrari ordering Rubens Barrichello to move over for Schumacher in Austria, changes have 'spiced up the show'.

The fare served up has been far tastier but it could all be undone by a few millimetres of rubber.

No sooner do Williams edge ahead of Ferrari in the championship than, with three races to go, doubts emerge about the legality of their Michelin tyres.

New Checks

Williams's Colombian Juan Pablo Montoya could seize the overall lead from Schumacher at next week's Italian Grand Prix only to be ruled out because too much of his front tyres was in contact with the road.

With Montoya just one point adrift of Schumacher with McLaren's Kimi Raikkonen right behind, it would not be good box office.

While Michelin say their tyres conform to the rules, Ferrari believe they are illegal in race conditions and have told the FIA as much.

There will now be new checks at Monza: "The tyres in question either comply with the regulation or they do not," said an FIA spokesman.

"If they are used in Monza in combination with a car set-up which gives more than 270mm tread width, the stewards and, ultimately, the FIA Court of Appeal will have to decide if the rules have been broken".

Rules are rules, but the problem lies in the interpretation and the timing.

Nobody questions Ferrari's right to blow the whistle if they believe rivals are bending the rules. On one level, the controversy is to be expected -- loopholes are there to be exploited until someone else closes them.

It could be that the controversy blows over but there are fears that it could take the heat out of an enthralling championship showdown with arcane technical arguments overshadowing the sporting contest.

In a worst case scenario, it could be left to a courtroom to decide the championship.

Cynics are not the only ones questioning why the furore has emerged only now, with Ferrari preparing for their home race in an atmosphere of crisis after Schumacher was lapped in Hungary last month.

"We are three races from the end of what is a very close and exciting world championship and the lead in the race for the manufacturers' title has just changed hands," said Michelin's Pierre Dupasquier.

"So who has the most to gain from this action?"

Glamour Team

Formula One needs Ferrari, the glamour team with an allure and history like no other.

But it does not need suspicions, dimmed since the 1999 Malaysian Grand Prix 'bargeboard' controversy when an FIA appeal court revived Ferrari's title hopes in a similar argument over millimetres, that they can count on a helping hand when the going gets tough.

"Ferrari have always proved as adept in Formula One political matters as they have in terms of their competitiveness on the track and have been very effective in lobbying for changes which work in their favour," observed Williams technical director Patrick Head this week.

"But perhaps that's all part of the Formula One business and maybe you need to be able to do that."

Image is important to Formula One and protests and appeals after Monza would wreak havoc.

Imagine the uproar in Spain if Ferrari turned to rule 179b of the sporting code to review previous races and possibly overturn Fernando Alonso's Hungarian Grand Prix win for Michelin-shod Renault.

"Until this week, Formula One was making the most of its last chance," commented Richard Williams, author of a biography of Enzo Ferrari among other books, in Britain's the Guardian newspaper.

"Now it has 10 days in which to pull itself together and behave sensibly. Otherwise it may find that all it has designed for itself is a route to oblivion."

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