Rules strained as F1 race heats up

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The Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona on Sunday promises to be a highly unusual event. For the first time ever a Spanish driver, Fernando Alonso, leads the world championship, while one of the original favourites for victory sits on the sidelines serving a two-race ban.

On Thursday, the BAR Honda team were found guilty by the appeal court of the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile of irregularities in the fuel system of Jenson Button's car at last month's San Marino Grand Prix at Imola.

The court suspended BAR from racing this weekend and at the glamorous Monaco event in two weeks' time - ironically, the very two races where the team believed they had the best chances of winning. Furthermore, the judges docked the six points for Button's third place at Imola, the four points team-mate Takuma Sato gained for fifth place, and BAR's 10 constructors' championship points.

Although the penalties were much less than the FIA wanted, they are an unprecedented and costly punishment for a Formula One team during the season.

On Friday BAR maintained their innocence, but announced that they would not fight the verdict further.

Nick Fry, BAR chief executive, added: "I haven't sat down and calculated what it [the cost] is at the moment but in terms of contractual obligations that we'll have to meet I could confidently say this is going to add up to more than $10m [£5.3m]."

In recent years there have been several interpretations of technical rules by teams that crossed the line of illegality, but this case hints at a zero-tolerance approach by the FIA in future.

After the San Marino race, scrutineers found the fuel system of Button's car contained a separate collector tank, which retained 11kg of fuel after the main fuel tank had been drained. F1 cars must weigh a minimum of 600kg, including the driver, at all times during the race. With the secondary tank drained, the car was 5kg underweight. The FIA's charge was that BAR was running below the weight limit during the middle part of the race and then filled the secondary tank as ballast at the final fuel stop.

BAR strongly denied this. They contend that it is a question of interpretation as there are no clear rules regarding the fuel left in the car after a race.

The advantage of running 11kg underweight would be that Button's car would be about 3/10ths of a second per lap faster than otherwise, equating to about eight seconds over the race distance.

The incident is highly embarrassing for the team and especially for Honda, whose F1 history is rich with hard-fought success. It also virtually guarantees that Button will leave the team at the end of the season to join BMW Williams, a move he attempted to make last year but was thwarted by BAR in a contractual wrangle.

As part of the settlement of this row, it was agreed that if Button does not have 75 per cent of the points of the championship leader by the end of August, he will belong to Williams. Now the Briton has no points, while Alonso has 36. After serving his ban he will have just eight races to close the gap before the deadline.

Nevertheless, the prospect of a thrilling four-way battle still lies ahead this weekend. Renault have won all four grands prix this season, with Alonso claiming three and team-mate Giancarlo Fisichella the other, while McLaren's pole position with Kimi Raikkonen at Imola and an improved car suggest they will be frontrunners in Spain. And Toyota continue to make impressive progress.

Meanwhile, reigning champions Ferrari have made huge strides recently after their poor start, thanks to an intensive test and development programme. In the middle part of the San Marino Grand Prix, world champion Michael Schumacher, who ran Alonso desperately close in finishing second, was two seconds a lap faster than the Spaniard. Much of this was because of the performance of the new Bridgestone tyres.

It is likely there will be little to choose between the four teams in terms of performance in qualifying today and over the race distance tomorrow.

Alonso, 23, and Schumacher, 36, have been indulging in mind games before each of the last two races, both saying that the other is favourite. Schumacher suggested that Alonso's points advantage - he has 26 more than the German - would oblige him to drive conservatively and not take risks. Alonso replied at Imola by "brake-testing" Schumacher, braking and swerving to keep his close pursuer at bay during the last 12 laps.

The Spaniard is playing Schumacher at his own game, pulling the same sort of moves that the German himself used a decade ago when he challenged the then benchmark driver Ayrton Senna. That famously resulted in Senna aiming a punch at Schumacher during a test session. But great champions can always recognise their heirs-apparent and Schumacher has known for three years that Alonso and Raikkonen would one day challenge his supremacy.

But, being F1, there is a twist. McLaren and Renault are signatories, along with seven other teams, to an agreement to limit testing during the season to just 30 days. Ferrari refuse to sign, because they are the only team using Bridgestones and believe that puts them at a disadvantage if testing is restricted. The result is that Ferrari are testing when and where they like and thus F1 this season is anything but a level playing-field.

Ferrari hope that the desire for success will break the solidarity of the signatory teams, while they in turn hope that, should Ferrari win the title by this means, it would be regarded as a hollow victory. Jean Todt, Ferrari team boss, upped the ante this week by saying: "We could be much tougher. But because we feel we already have an advantage we choose not to. Our rivals should respect that. But most people are illogical towards Ferrari. They are bad losers."

No one likes to lose in F1 and this is why teams go to such extremes to avoid it.

James Allen is ITV Sport's lead F1 commentator

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