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Dodgy Business: From innocuous to grave

The Hamilton/Trulli incident spiralled from a harmless attempt to play it by the book to a grave breach of sporting regulations in the three days between the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix weekends

You have to feel for Martin Whitmarsh. Despite the fact that he's been at McLaren 20 years there's this funny perception that he's a new boy. And that his 'start' hasn't been too good.

There's never been a better illustration of how small, innocuous, 'nothing' events can snowball out of control in, for want of a better description, 'the media age' than what unfolded at the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Martin Whitmarsh © LAT
Australia hadn't been great by McLaren standards. As it had suspected, it went from the front almost to the back but still managed to salvage fourth place, which became third when the stewards awarded a 25s penalty to Jarno Trulli for re-passing Lewis Hamilton behind the safety car, having previously run off the road.

McLaren's sporting director, Davey Ryan, was cross with himself for not reacting quicker and telling the owner of the calm, unflappable voice you hear on the radio (Richard Hopkirk, team tactician for Lewis Hamilton) that it wasn't necessary for Lewis to allow Trulli back past. Lewis was cross that they'd needlessly ceded a podium. So in the stewards room they made out that Trulli had re-passed of his own accord, that Lewis had not slowed to allow him by.

But media interviews given by Hamilton when he got out of the car and before he went to the stewards room didn't square with that and once the FIA listened to the radio transmissions it was all too obvious what had happened. McLaren was in the mire.

But none of this was known on Sunday night when everyone left the Melbourne paddock. To get the whole show ripped down and reassembled, spick and span in Malaysia 72 hours later is some effort in logistics.

By the time you leave the media centre late on a Sunday night, forklifts are flying everywhere in the dark, freight crates are being stacked and the whole operation is a sight to behold.

For those fortunate enough not to be involved in all that, there's sometimes the opportunity to snatch two or three days in the sunshine. If you can include family, so much the better. Whitmarsh was among those who did. When he left Melbourne on Sunday night, there was no hint of a problem and doubtless nothing was further from his mind than what happened with Jarno Trulli behind a safety car.

The first indication that anything was amiss came on Wednesday, when stories began that the FIA was going to look into the Trulli/Hamilton incident again. They broke in Germany, several hours behind Indonesia, where Whitmarsh had probably put on his after- sun, enjoyed a cocktail and gone to bed.

Travelling, he arrived into the Sepang paddock a few hours later than usual on Thursday, no doubt to his eternal regret. Hamilton had also been on holiday but arrived earlier. So did Davey Ryan, who had a chat with Sam Michael at the paddock gate. The Williams technical director told him he'd just read on the internet that the stewards were reconvening to look into Australia.

This was mighty unusual. To reconsider additional evidence you have to reconvene the same three stewards. For it to happen in a different country at a couple of day's notice, was unexpected to put it mildly. Even if Whitmarsh had known there was an issue when he left Australia, he might reasonably have expected the team to be up before the beak in Paris in a couple of weeks.

But by the time he walked through the paddock gates at Sepang not quite four days later, all hell had broken loose. Hamilton had been chucked out of the Oz results, Trulli was reinstated and the liar headlines were already winging their way around the world. Whitmarsh was descended upon by the media on arrival and, naturally enough, defended his troops. When he said they hadn't lied it added to the general confusion and upset the media even more.

Dave Ryan and Lewis Hamilton leave the stewards meeting in Malaysia © LAT
Really, Trulli/Hamilton was a nothing incident. Every time two drivers are called before race stewards anywhere they have a different version of the same event. Sometimes, one is the truth. And in the McLaren radio transmission to Lewis itself, the team talks about "doing it by the book" even if, as was evident, they weren't quite sure what the book says.

Questions have been asked in the not so distant past about whether McLaren has been fairly treated by the sport's governing body. But if you suspect, rightly or not, that someone is out to shoot you, best not hand them a gun. Which is precisely what they did by being economical with the truth.

But nobody burned the school down. At worst it was a bit of chewing gum on teacher's seat. Best sorted out behind closed doors by a cuff around the ear. For the press though, it was wilful lying, involving the world champion! Predictably, the media centre moved into overdrive. Davey Ryan was a senior member of McLaren and he'd made an error or judgement because he was annoyed at himself and trying to seek the best outcome for his driver. But as McLaren's name was besmirched once more it became an error with a consequence entirely disproportionate to its actuality.

Poor Whitmarsh was now in an awful position. He spoke to Ryan long into Thursday night before taking the decision to suspend him. It was, he admitted, the most difficult thing he'd ever had to do.

Damned for scapegoating if he did and damned for failing to take the matter seriously if he didn't, it was a no-win situation. Ryan was not just a colleague but also a friend. He was the man on the front left wheel when James Hunt won the world championship in a McLaren at Fuji in '76. Cut Dave Ryan and he'd bleed McLaren. And yet there he was picking up his kit and heading for the airport on Friday morning. Yes he'd been wrong, but it's as big an injustice as I can recall.

"The loss of Davey is a huge hole," Whitmarsh said. "He ran this team, to be frank. Various people have been the figureheads but Davey ran this team. He made the operational decisions and he made it all happen."

From there it all snowballed further. On Friday afternoon we had Lewis Hamilton using the FIA media room to host his own press conference. This was a bit odd. The FIA has a pre-arranged schedule of press conferences and that's it. The protocol is pretty strictly adhered too. For instance, after a race we get the top three. Obviously, if as happened in the championship decider at Interlagos last year, the big story - as Lewis Hamilton was as the new world champion - is outside the top three, you'd like to be able to talk to him. So McLaren apparently requested that Hamilton, if he finished off the podium but was champion, be allowed to go to the press room. They were told no.

So what was this? Cynics in the media room, and there are a few, suggested that last November it would have been positive press for McLaren whereas this time it was negative, so that was fine. It was worth asking the McLaren communications chief about.

Lewis Hamilton in the special Friday press conference © LAT
"Well," he said, "Lewis's conference was our idea and we were wondering where to have it because our paddock room was too small, so we wondered if we'd be allowed to do it in the FIA press room." He added: "It was arranged by us - although I'm sure Max may well have had the same idea at the same time because it's not exactly an original idea. I sent an email to Alex Schieren (the FIA's press delegate), cc Richard Woods (the FIA communications director). I checked with Alan Donnelly (the permanent non-voting chairman of the stewards and Max Mosley's eyes and ears in the paddock) whether the email was an appropriate thing to do and he said yes, do send that, and it came back yes. So it was not something that was imposed on this team. This team certainly realised that it had to say sorry."

Hamilton arrived and did that alright - to all and sundry. Someone even applauded. In fairness to Lewis he did mention that Davey Ryan was a good guy, but it was also a pretty transparent attempt to escape any further sanction and finger his team and Ryan. He's not a 10-year-old, he's a 24-year-old multi-millionaire world champion who should be able to take responsibility for his own actions. I'd be upset with my eight year old daughter if she snitched like that.

Did the team realise it had to say sorry because Anthony Hamilton had been in touch with Mosley saying they were so fed up with the liar headlines that they were prepared to walk from F1 and McLaren?

That was the well-founded story that emerged on Saturday night and on Sunday morning Whitmarsh was in the hot seat again at the media session the team hosts at each race. Did the buck not stop with him? Was he going to resign? Had the team brought Lewis into disrepute? Was he therefore free to walk from his contract and join another team? Had there been discussions with his management (Anthony Hamilton)? Was Mercedes Benz getting fed up with all this negative publicity? Would there be commercial considerations (like sponsors leaving)? And on and on like that.

It's easy to get carried away but by the same token, nothing really surprises you. So when someone suggests that a mischievous mind might think that an amusing way to test the FOTA unity could be to hand Hamilton a get-out from his McLaren deal and have rival teams fighting over the world champion and promotional goldmine, you start to mull it over in your head. There were even people suggesting Button and Hamilton in Virgin Racing Brawns by Barcelona...

Whitmarsh calmly and eloquently dealt with the flak. No, he was not going to resign. Not this weekend anyway. His future, he pointed out, was not self-determined, it would be decided by team shareholders. The principal one is Mercedes-Benz, whose motorsport chief Norbert Haug was sat alongside him and solidly supportive, for good reason.

The trigger for last weekend was something small and innocuous that grew into a monster. McLaren, undoubtedly, shot itself squarely in the foot and, at the moment, has paid with the loss of its sporting director and six points for Hamilton. There could be more to come... The issue dominated the weekend.

On track the new season was as fascinating as it had been in Australia until the entirely predictable ending to a twilight race in a country with monsoon rain duly materialised.

Nick Heidfeld (BMW Sauber F1.09) battles Mark Webber (Red Bull RB5 Renault) in the closing stages of the race © LAT
"It was pissing down at two o'clock as well," Mark Webber said when asked if he thought the earlier start time was better. "It rained twice, which is unusual for Malaysia but it's not the first time we've had heavy downpours and the way it was handled was fine."

Webber, in his GPDA role, was talking to drivers on the grid awaiting the restart that never came. "It was getting too dark, the track was waterlogged and I was just asking the others what they felt," he explained. "They said it's impossible, they're dreaming, we can't race."

After Spain and Austria 75, Monaco 84 and Australia 91 this was only the fifth red-flagged half-points race in world championship history. There had been the hope of doing another 10 laps, possibly all behind the safety car, to achieve the 42-lap 75% distance mark and award full points but even that would have been no easy task.

"When the safety car came out the team explained that all I had to do was drive around," Button said, "but that was difficult enough. A few moments later I was almost off the circuit. We were going round at running pace. That slow. The safety car was pulling away from us. It's embarrassing but that's as quick as we needed to go and if I'd gone any quicker I think I'd have ended up in the gravel."

Once again Button and Webber both starred in the wet but, as ever, the Aussie was unlucky. Ahead of eventual runner-up Heidfeld on worn wets, it started to rain heavily as he pulled into the pits for intermediates. Heidfeld was about to do the same but had time to change his mind. Had Webber been able to do likewise he'd have won.

"That cost us the win, that's what they told me," he said, "I didn't really know. In the car you don't see anything and I didn't have a clue what position I was in. There was no way to restart. The monsoon tyres cut the water a bit but behind the Safety car you just lose so much temperature that it's a vicious circle. You can't drive an F1 car in that."

With rain delays easily anticipated, especially at that time of day, why back yourself up against the light? It was just one of many questions asked at Sepang.
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