Gabriele Tarquini will no longer be racing under the threat of a suspended ten-place grid penalty, after the FIA court of appeal ruled that the regulations had been incorrectly applied during the World Touring Car Championship meeting in Mexico. However, the prospect of a drive-thru' penalty remains.
SEAT veteran Tarquini was adjudged to have been the guilty party in a clash with BMW's Jorg Muller, which saw the German spun out by the contact, on lap six of race two at Puebla. With notification of the stewards decision to penalise the Italian coming too late to be applied during the race, he was slapped with a 30-second penalty that removed him from the podium. However, the contention came when Tarquini was also assessed a drive-thru' penalty and ten-place grid drop, both suspended for the next three races.
Spanish motorsport body Real Federación Española de Automovilismo appealed the decision on behalf of SEAT Sport, leading to the hearing in Paris, claiming that the various penalties had been wrongly applied, while also claiming both discrimination against its 'client' and that various procedures had not been followed to the letter, potentially nullifying the entire process.
SEAT argued that 'the grid position penalty imposed... is not justified, or is disproportionate, given that Müller twice obstructed a legitimate overtaking manoeuvre from Tarquini, contrary to the regulations, by cutting Tarquini's trajectory in the curve, eventually causing both vehicles to collide', and called for Muller to also be penalised. The team also claimed that the grid position penalty was 'in any event, disproportionate when compared to other similar incidents during the same event and during the 2008 FIA WTCC', leading to the belief that it had been discriminated against.
The FIA countered that SEAT's description of the incident had no basis in fact and was not supported by the video recordings the team produced, which did not show that Müller obstructed Tarquini in his attempt to overtake, but rather that the Italian, 'not being in a position to overtake by any other trajectory, pushed Müller's car from behind, thereby unbalancing the latter, and that, during the braking that followed, attempted to brake on the inside, bringing about a second collision and causing Müller's car to leave the track'.
Having heard from the various parties, and watched tapes of the incident, the court - comprised of Jan Stovicek, Jean Luisi, Reginald Redmond and Thierry Julliard - accepted that the imposition of both a drive-thru penalty and ten-place grid penalty was not acceptable in a single ruling, and upheld SEAT's claim for the second punishment to be dismissed. According to FIA rules, drive-thru' penalties cannot be appealed, hence that possible sanction remains in place should Tarquini err again in the next three outings.
"After considering the submissions of the parties, the video recordings submitted by the appellant, and the report of the race director submitted by the FIA, the court observes that Mr Tarquini is responsible for causing at least the first collision under consideration in this appeal, and thereby breached Article 42 of the WTCC Sporting Regulations," the post-hearing explanation revealed, "The court notes that Mr Tarquini recognised, during the hearing, that he could have avoided the first collision by reducing his speed, but that he did not do so. He also recognised that, at the moment the first contact occurred, he was not performing an overtaking manoeuvre, contrary to what was stated in his grounds of appeal, but was positioning himself for subsequent overtaking."
The report confirmed that Article 44 of the WTCC Sporting Regulations allowed the stewards to impose only one of the three penalties on offer, and thus did not permit them to impose a drive-through penalty in addition to a grid position penalty. As a result, the court concluded that 'this aspect of the contested decision is not in conformity with the WTCC Sporting Regulations and that the grid position penalty should therefore be annulled'. The drive-thru' penalty 'is not susceptible to appeal', however, and will remain in place.
On the claims of 'arbitrary and discriminatory treatment against SEAT Sport' - which the team supported with suggestions that both Muller and BMW team-mate Andy Priaulx got away with similar indiscretions to Tarquini, while battling with SEAT's Tiago Monteiro and the Italian himself during the same meeting. It also pointed to incidents from the 2008 season as further evidence in its case, while the FIA countered that they had no relevance to the current case, and that Tarquini's actions had stemmed from incidents in race one at Puebla and 'clearly demonstrates that [he] took “extraordinary initiatives” in his driving manoeuvres, which he wrongly expected would not be penalised'.
The court rejected the plea on the grounds that no convincing evidence of any arbitrary or discriminatory treatment could be produced, and similarly dismissed claims that a 'lack of diligence' negatively affected the outcome of the entire penalty process.
Despite being partially vindicated by its appeal, the court ordered SEAT to pay the costs of the appeal, in accordance with Article 24 of the rules of the International Court of Appeal.