LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One’s governing body suspected Ferrari’s engine was not always operating within the rules last year but lacked conclusive evidence, it said on Thursday as a threat of legal action hung over the start of the new season.
The Paris-based FIA explained in a statement that it had therefore ended a technical investigation by reaching a private settlement with the Italian team to avoid lengthy litigation and an uncertain outcome.
The confidential settlement, announced last week on the last day of pre-season testing, angered non-Ferrari powered teams who issued a joint statement on Wednesday demanding clarity and threatening legal action.
The season starts in Melbourne next week.
The BBC reported that the seven teams had responded to the FIA’s latest statement with another joint letter, this time confidential, demanding answers by a given deadline to a series of questions.
It said the concerns included why the FIA felt unable to prove doubts about the engine’s legality and whether last year’s championship finishing order should be called into question.
The FIA said earlier that “the extensive and thorough investigations undertaken during the 2019 season raised suspicions that the Scuderia Ferrari PU (power unit) could be considered as not operating within the limits of the FIA regulations at all times.
“The Scuderia Ferrari firmly opposed the suspicions and reiterated that its PU always operated in compliance with the regulations,” it added.
“The FIA was not fully satisfied but decided that further action would not necessarily result in a conclusive case due to the complexity of the matter and the material impossibility to provide the unequivocal evidence of a breach.”
It said the confidentiality of the settlement agreement was provided for under the sport’s judicial and disciplinary rules.
Article 4 (VI) states that “the prosecuting body and all persons taking part in the inquiry are bound by an obligation of confidentiality vis‐à‐vis persons or organisations not concerned with the inquiry”.
The settlement itself was covered by article 4 (II) of the same regulations.
The FIA said it had wanted “to avoid the negative consequences that a long litigation would entail especially in light of the uncertainty of the outcome of such litigations and in the best interest of the championship and of its stakeholders”.
The settlement with Ferrari was “effective and dissuasive”, it added.
“This type of agreement is a legal tool recognised as an essential component of any disciplinary system and is used by many public authorities and other sport federations in the handling of disputes.”
Seven teams, including champions Mercedes, on Wednesday called for greater transparency. The FIA’s original statement contained little information.
“After months of investigations that were undertaken by the FIA only following queries raised by other teams, we strongly object to the FIA reaching a confidential settlement agreement with Ferrari to conclude this matter,” they said.
Ferrari’s engine was the subject of much speculation last year, with rivals suspecting the team were circumventing fuel flow sensors to gain performance.
The Italian team, overall runners-up last year with three race wins, had started the season as early favourites after impressive times in testing.
The performance appeared to tail off, however, after the FIA issued several technical directives concerning fuel flow sensors later in the year. They have also been slower than Mercedes on the 2020 testing timesheets.
Ferrari declined to comment.
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond