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Formula 1

Wolff is right – Massa bid succeeding would cause F1 ‘disarray’

by Edd Straw
4 min read

There’s vastly more at stake in Felipe Massa’s search for what he calls “justice” over the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix than the destiny of that season’s world championship. Should his legal action somehow lead to a change in the results a decade and a half after the fact, unlikely as it is, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff argues Formula 1 would be “in disarray” as a consequence.

You might question what Wolff has to do with this given he wasn’t involved in F1 in 2008. He was drawn into this saga after saying on Friday that he was following the case with interest and that if there were to be some retrospective re-shaping of the results of 2008 “it would certainly set a precedent”.

F1 Felipe Massa support banner

It’s vanishingly unlikely, but suppose Massa’s action led to the final four races of 2008 being rewritten? Mercedes would have no choice but to use that decision to challenge the outcome in 2021. This would be a statute-of-limitations-busting precedent that obligates anyone in that position to take action, regardless of whether they wanted to, especially given a change in the destiny of the ’08 championship would require something more dramatic than the usual penalty of disqualifying the offender.

Those who assume Wolff would therefore be cheering on Massa from the sidelines are wide of the mark. He is emphatic in his view that there is no case and that’s because he understands exactly what is at stake.

“I don’t think he has a case, to be honest,” said Wolff of Massa when asked by The Race if he would be obligated to take action on Abu Dhabi 2021 were retrospective action taken on the Singapore result.

Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Max Verstappen Red Bull F1

“We sign up to sporting regulations, they’re very clear, you’re committing to it, you are a licence holder and if everybody were to open up situations, then the sport would be in disarray.

“There’s so many things that have an influence whether you win or lose that I don’t see the case.

“On the civil case side, I don’t know if they evaluate whether there are some damages that could be claimed. I think reputationally you have a difficult position – what is it? It is like watching a telenovela or a soap [opera] panning out in front of me.”

The domino effect of Massa being successful would extend far and wide, but the first impact would be on 2021. As Wolff alluded to on Friday, given the FIA confirmed in a statement the “human error” that led to the circumstances of the restart, it would be vastly easier to prove than Massa’s case would be. And if the Massa case were to set a precedent for modifying results after the fact then the conditions that led to Mercedes, reluctantly, accepting to pursue no further action would have changed dramatically. Massa’s team is attempting to frame what happened as conspiracy – you can frame just about anything in those terms once the door has been forced open by the first successful case.

What’s more, 2021 is arguably more clear-cut and perhaps more straightforward to fix. If Piquet didn’t hurl his Renault at the wall on the 14th lap of the Singapore Grand Prix, you then have to extrapolate not only what would have happened in the rest of that race but also its knock-on effect on the three grands prix that followed. If Singapore ’08 were annulled, then the approaches of the title protagonists in the races that followed would have been completely different.

With 2008 and ’21 fixed, what else could be revisited?

Ayrton Senna Alain Prost McLaren F1

What of the 2007 world championship, during which there were several actions against McLaren that could be argued to have been questionable? Was Ayrton Senna’s exclusion from the 1989 Japanese Grand Prix for cutting the track after seemingly being wiped out by team-mate Alain Prost imposed correctly? And what of Mike Hawthorn being reinstated in Portugal in 1958, could there have been a procedural error there?

The examples of championship-influencing incidents that could be picked apart are legion and you can be certain lawyers would be on them like vultures.

You can reinterpret history, but you cannot re-write the outcomes.

Some will contend this does matter and such injustice should always be righted. That might be true in the ‘real world’ but on the artificial stage of sporting competition, miscarriages of justice have lower stakes. It’s also important to note that this debate is not about brand new cases, but ones that have already been tackled. One of the conceits of the artifice that is sport is that the referee’s verdict is final, and Singapore 2008 has been ruled on.

There are cases in sport of retrospective changes when evidence is found of past offences, perhaps the most famous being all seven of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France wins being struck from the record. That left nobody winning the 1999-2005 Tours, but that was about punishing a specific offender.

Felipe Massa Ferrari F1 Lance Armstrong

Lewis Hamilton had no part in what happened in Singapore 2008, even if it helped his championship campaign, just as Max Verstappen did what any racing driver would do in Abu Dhabi by taking the lead at the restart. Two wrongs do not make a right.

Re-opening sporting cases that have already been tried using wider legal mechanisms would be the first step on an absurd road. What happened in Singapore 2008 wasn’t right, but any attempt to correct that now would be counterproductive and lead to open season on rewriting sporting history.

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