To wails of angst in many quarters, Flavio Briatore yesterday succeeded in overturning the lifetime exclusion from motorsport imposed on him and Pat Symonds by the FIA World Motor Sport Council. The judgement seems to me to be fair and proper.
Let me clarify. I have no great sympathy for Briatore and have little liking for what he represents: a vacuous ethical continuum inhabited by overly wealthy and out-of-touch old men. He is the epitome of the grasping plutocrat who seeks success and personal enrichment above all else, and it was this mindset that led him to a dark place in September 2008.
Some people will tell you that the end justifies the means. And yet, even if the goal in question is winning a grand prix, no reasonable person could sanction a means by which a driver is permitted or compelled to recklessly endanger their own life as well as those of the marshals and spectators. From this angle the matter of whether Nelson Piquet was the originator of the stratagem, or whether Briatore and Symonds coerced him, is irrelevant.
To my mind the original punishment fitted the crime. What the Tribunal de Grande Instance in Paris found yesterday was that the FIA had no power to impose that punishment on Briatore and Symonds because they were not FIA license holders. This was the argument Briatore had put forward before the WMSC hearing, and was so confident in that he did not turn up for the hearing itself.
The WMSC’s verdict was, at best, a fudge – and one that was motivated by political expediency. Under Article 123 of the International Sporting Code, Renault F1 was responsible for the actions of its employees. It escaped punishment because it took rapid and severe action in mitigation; but one doesn’t have to be too cynical to observe that the last thing the sport needed at that time was to lose another manufacturer. Thus the verdict, which in its legalistic agility and its attention to detail bears the stamp of the outgoing FIA president, Max Mosley:
As regards Mr Briatore, the World Motor Sport Council declares that, for an unlimited period, the FIA does not intend to sanction any International Event, Championship, Cup, Trophy, Challenge or Series involving Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever, or grant any license to any Team or other entity engaging Mr Briatore in any capacity whatsoever. It also hereby instructs all officials present at FIA-sanctioned events not to permit Mr Briatore access to any areas under the FIA’s jurisdiction.
It is therefore not a ban, as such, but an edict to all involved in motorsport to send Messrs Briatore and Symonds to Coventry. Even so, it is what it is: a clever piece of linguistic legerdemain, but ultimately a fudge.
I know I’m slightly unfashionable in my belief that Max Mosley did much to improve motorsport during his tenure. But he frequently demonstrated an unpleasantly patrician and autocratic mindset – one that drove him to deploy his considerable intellect with a steamrollering flourish.
No person or body should have the power to impose a punishment that is not properly enshrined in law. This is a fundamental principle of justice. The FIA must take the opportunity to provide itself with the mechanisms to punish miscreants fairly and transparently. In its statement yesterday, it suggested that something may be on the cards:
The FIA intends to consider appropriate actions to ensure that no persons who would engage, or who have engaged, in such dangerous activities or acts of intentional cheating will be allowed to participate in Formula One in the future.
Amen to that. The more transparent and straightforward the legal process, the less likely it is that those such as Briatore can attempt to shift the terms of debate. Throughout this case he has ignored the ethical dimension of his conduct and concentrated solely on protesting that Mosley is pursuing a vendetta against him. This is what statisticians and philosophers call the Motivational Fallacy: failing to engage with another person’s argument by calling into question their opponent’s motivation. Slippery politicians do it all the time.
If there is anything less edifying than an ageing plutocrat, it is the sight of one publicly handbagging another. The learned fellows of the Tribunal de Grande Instance clearly believed this, too, and awarded Briatore a pitiful fraction of the €2million he was claiming in damages.