CBS Sluiced by FIA

Anne Proffit
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They got lucky at CBS Sports on Sunday with the first over-the-air showing of a Formula One race since ABC's meager experiment a couple of years back.

Changes in F1 rules for the 2005 season begat a new order in standings after a trio of off-shore races.

"Now the season begins," declared Michael Schumacher upon arrival at Imola for the fourth race of the 19-event campaign. It hasn't been the best start for the 7-time champ and his Ferrari team. Even the F2005 didn't overwhelm in its Bahrain debut and Schumacher came to Imola 14th in points.

Renault led the standings going into the San Marino Grand Prix with three victories. Would it still at the close? Fernando Alonso owned the point lead for drivers with two straight victories (and teammate Giancarlo Fisichella contributed a win in the season starter at Australia).

But that phrase, "The season begins this week" seemed to hang on everyone's mind in the paddock as the familiar European term commenced. Michael Schumacher has that affect on and off the track, it seems.

Tension in a race paddock is a glorious thing and F1 seems to have it in spades this year.

With the change in fortune of various teams, the convoluted qualifying system (subject to change at the whim of Bernard Charles Ecclestone) and rules that dictate two-race engines and a single-race tire use situation, there's a heck of a lot more to look at in 2005.

And CBS got lucky this weekend with the Grand Prix of San Marino.

Schumacher started 13th; Alonso was on pole. Could they possibly fight for the win?

Yes.

This one will go down as a classic and if the network gets lucky enough in Spain a couple of weeks hence with another great battle, maybe Formula One could find a future in the United States, particularly if it precedes a golf tournament on CBS. The quick action might even wake up golf fans.

No wait, that's going a bit too far.

What wonder to see Schumacher come alive at mid-race after his first pit stop and burrow through the field of competitors, even as Alonso drove a smooth, Schumacher-like contest easily keeping all other pursuers at bay.

Jensen Button suddenly regained form as well, an occurrence that makes one wonder the loss to ABC/ESPN's IRL broadcast team of new BAR/Honda head Gil de Ferran. The Brazilian champion's business acumen and enthusiasm/joy for the sport has probably already infected Honda's recently purchased team.

Even Takuma Sato finished this week and gained points in fifth position, making Imola quite the turnaround for the beleaguered BAR squad that has gone through more changes than a month-old baby since its best-ever 2004 F1 season.

A blast from the past, Jacques Villeneuve scored his first points for Sauber Petronas, fooling everyone who wrote him off. Until next week? Time will tell with Jacques, who only seems to run well when the car suits him.

After announcing they'd be switching to Ferrari engines for 2006-7, the Red Bull team that started the season on such high hopes fell down, newcomer Vitantonio (Tonio) Liuzzi and David Coulthard failing to gain a single point. Coulthard holds sixth in the current standings while "regular teammate" Christian Klien sat on the bench and waited, tied for 16th.

Mercedes-McLaren polesitter Kimi Raikkonen, who allegedly was on light on fuel failed to finish due to a busted differential; Juan Pablo Montoya's broken arm hadn't healed sufficiently for him to take part and tester Alex Wurz came away with a fourth-place effort.

Is Ron Dennis getting his money's worth out of new hire Montoya or is the Colombian slacking off with his extracurricular activities taking precedence over work?

The mighty Toyota team of Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher took seventh and eighth, respectively, placing the Japanese auto maker's high financed team back where it's normally located: midfield.

Of course, despite the fabulous action on the track and in the pits during the Grand Prix of San Marino, the FIA managed to find a way to make it all look like crapola once the race had been aired.

Despite failing zero technical inspections prior to the 62-lap contest, the BAR-Honda team's cars for Button and Sato were pulled aside for a secondary inspection, much like a bunch of Mexican wetbacks.

Apparently the FIA had wanted to take a look at BAR's new chassis for quite a while. Lacking sharp results in the first three events, there was no rationale to go for discovery with BAR. Until this weekend.

Button's car had been weighed as part of the normal post-race exercises and was found to be above minimum weight. Once drained of fuel it was underweight but stewards let the results stand. The FIA is now appealing its own stewards!

And this egregious flip-flop by race stewards and overseer FIA continued in its happily meddlesome manner with penalty to Ralf Schumacher for an unsafe pit stop. Apparently the spare Schumacher came out in front of Nick Heidfeld, forcing the Williams driver to brake prematurely for his pits and therefore lose time.

More F1 races are won and lost on pit road these days than on the track, with drivers attempting to set personal best laps prior to calling for added fuel. Heidfeld was likely slowing from his banzai tour around Imola's tricky and fast corners and did not expect Schumacher to be there.

The German lost 25 seconds for the infraction and was pushed back to tenth from his on-track finishing slot of eighth, while Heidfeld and Mark Webber moved up, no doubt making Sir Frank Williams a bit happier than he had been. Toyota, of course is appealing.

So despite the marvelous occurrence of a spectacularly competitive race that actually showed well on network television, the results Americans saw was not necessarily what happened in the court of Formula One.

And that's a damn shame, though not really unexpected. I was so excited to be able to write about something positive in open wheel racing this week and the FIA sluiced that idea, didn't they?

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