Amid the Wailing and Screaming: The Diffuser Case in Depth

Andy ShawCorrespondent IJanuary 18, 2017

The words "sour grapes" are banded about perhaps a little too often in Formula One, and in no recent memory have they been uttered with greater insistence than in the latest technical debacle to descend upon the sport.

"Diffuser-gate," as it would undoubtedly be known had the world not already grown thoroughly sick of attaching the suffix "-gate" to any remotely scandalous news story, has divided opinion and heated up discussions in all corners of F1 since it reared its head in preseason testing.

There is little doubt that Brawn GP, who have used the questionable diffusers and are currently leading both championships, have established a commanding presence in Formula One, and it is thus natural to assume that rivals such as Ferrari and McLaren, themselves unusually uncompetitive this year, may be looking for a way to curtail Brawn's success by seeking methods off the track as well as on.

But this explanation is both overly simplistic and slanderously inaccurate.

It is all too easy to dismiss the claims of Ferrari, BMW Sauber, Renault, and Red Bull, who are leading the proceedings on the side of the plaintiffs this week, as being those of desperate charlatans who are seeking a competitive advantage at whatever cost, be it financial or to the fragile reputation of the sport.

Yet this explanation, as satisfying as it might be to supporters of the defendants, fails to grasp the full scope of the case or its importance for Formula One.

Max Mosley, in his capacity as President of the FIA, has previously admitted that F1's technical regulations are worded deliberately vaguely in order to allow teams maximum freedom in engineering their own solutions to the problems imposed by the rules.

We have seen this approach in action this year, with cars sporting radically different shapes from one another for the first time in many years.

However, the flip side of the FIA's intention is where controversy arises. When one team interprets a rule differently to another, it is perfectly reasonable to expect the teams to seek clarification, to determine whose interpretation is correct.

When the differing interpretations of a rule might mean the gain or loss of up to half a second a lap, the advantage allegedly conveyed by the diffuser designs in question, teams are bound to raise questions about whose designs are legal.

Today's hearing at the FIA Court of Appeal revealed that, contrary to the stated beliefs of some parties, this is not simply a case of some teams being irked that they had not thought of the "double-decker" diffuser concept themselves.

Andrew Ford, representing Renault, revealed that the French team had presented a similar idea to the FIA themselves: "It is not that Renault missed the boat, as Brawn have pointed out," Ford said. "It is because the FIA said it was illegal. It was at that point the diffuser was abandoned."

If this is true, it adds a further layer to the story: The FIA said one thing, yet their race stewards (who have ruled the designs legal at both of the season's opening Grand Prix) said another.

This is the same kind of difference of opinion that caught Renault out over their mass dampers in 2006: Though race stewards ruled them legal, a protest submitted to the FIA (and later upheld by the governing body) declared that they were not.

Renault had to contest the latter part of the 2006 season without the dampers, despite the fact that they had been declared legal from late 2005 onwards.

However, the FIA took account of the stewards' rulings in this case, and allowed Renault to keep their results from previous races on the basis that the dampers had technically been legal at that point.

Using this case as precedent, it is unimaginable that the paranoid scenario espoused by some panicked critics, in which Brawn, Toyota, and Williams were excluded from the results of the first two races of this year, would actually see fruition.

If the appeal by the non-diffuser teams is upheld, it is far more likely that the results of the first two races would stand, but that the three "diffuser" teams would be required to run "conventional" diffusers from the Chinese Grand Prix next weekend onward.

The outcome of the case appears to hinge on whether a particular opening in the diffusers of the teams in question constitutes a "hole" or not.

Holes are not permitted in the rear diffuser. Esteemed Ferrari designer Rory Byrne pointed out earlier this week that this is not a new regulation, as it has been in force for well over a decade.

With only two races gone, it would be premature to suggest that this ruling will decide the outcome of the world championship. However, since the definition of the word "hole" will come under close scrutiny as this case draws to a close, it is certainly reasonable to say that the diffuser saga could be settled on a technicality.

Perhaps the FIA is to blame for their lack of clarity in the rules. Before the start of the season, Max Mosley expressed relief that the legality of the diffusers was no longer his decision.

It is certainly the case that an FIA-issued clarification before the formal start of the season in Melbourne would have dissipated an awful lot of the tension that has been generated by this controversy so far this year.

Moreover, if Renault's claim is true, and a similar concept was dismissed as illegal by the FIA themselves at an earlier point, the FIA's unwillingness—rather than inability—to resolve this conflict sooner is highlighted, with obvious implications for the credibility of the sport in general.

That credibility will only be damaged further the longer this saga goes on, but the plaintiffs cannot be blamed for pursuing this matter to its legal end.