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OCTOBER 20, 1997

Williams drops its appeal

THE Williams team has withdrawn Jacques Villeneuve's appeal against his exclusion from the Japanese Grand Prix. Villeneuve finished fifth in the race at Suzuka and the withdrawal of the appeal means that he has lost the two points he gained in the race and will go to the season's finale at Jerez de la Frontera one point behind Michael Schumacher in the Drivers' WorldÊChampionship.

The regulations allow for an appeal to be withdrawn after the event, the only punishment for a team being the loss of the fee which is paid when an appeal is lodged. This is 30,000 French Francs ($5,100). The regulations do not give any indication what would have happened if Villeneuve had collided with Michael Schumacher at the start of the Japanese GP.

The entire affair underlines the fact that the FIA stewards - who are supposed to have "supreme authority" at races - have no power at all as any decision they make can be appealed and that appeal can then be withdrawn before the case is heard. This absurd situation has come about as a convenient way of allowing competitors to race despite a ban - thus avoiding commercial litigation which might arise from sponsors if a car did not appear in a race.

The FIA Court of Appeal has the power to increase or decrease penalties inflicted by the stewards and may also fine an appellant one million French Francs ($170,000) if the appeal is considered to be "frivolous". Villeneuve was excluded from the Japanese GP for ignoring waved yellow flags while under a suspended ban for the offense.

Williams made the decision after FIA President Max Mosley was quoted on German television suggesting that Villeneuve might lose more than his two points from Suzuka if the case went to the FIA Court of Appeal.

"If Williams would withdraw their appeal, I can imagine that the court of appeal would stick to the two points deduction," Mosley said.

This is exactly what happened, which suggests that while the FIA International Court of Appeal may be an independent body it can still be influenced by the FIA President.

While some in F1 feel that Mosley's comments were a threat to Williams, a better explanation is that Mosley used the opportunity to give the impression that the FIA Court of Appeal is a totally independent body - which has not always been the case. Williams knew that the two points in Suzuka were going to be lost whatever happened and that it would have been most unlikely that there would be further penalties as these would detract from the showdown at Jerez, which has come about as a result of Villeneuve's problems.

Williams technical director Patrick Head expressed his worries about going to Jerez one point behind Schumacher, indicating that he thought that Schumacher was quite capable of taking Villeneuve off the track to win the title. "I think that is what happened with Damon Hill in 1994," said Head. "It think that was a deliberate removal of a competitor."

Schumacher rejected the suggestion but said he would be aggressive "if necessary" and later expressed fears that fellow countryman Heinz-Harald Frentzen might be used by Williams to block him.

Whatever the case, the European Grand Prix at Jerez is going to be a media circus and is likely to attract an extraordinary amount of TV viewers all around the world - to the delight of the F1 bosses.

For the record, it is worth noting that both Villeneuve and Schumacher have suffered only one mechanical failure this season - a remarkably low rate of attrition. Villeneuve has won seven times and had four accidents; Schumacher has won five times and had two accidents. If the pair finish equal on points Villeneuve will win the title.