Monday, June 18, 2012

The letter and spirit of the rules

Motor racing is a very interesting game. A lot of it involves trying to get around the rules in some way to gain a technical advantage, which tends to mean the rules are often amended to say "OK, now that particular trick isn't allowed". Part of the trouble is with the regulations known as homologation; these are in place to attempt to make sure that cars supposed to be based on roadgoing cars really are based on roadgoing cars. There have been any number of dodges to get around them; one of the more famous occurred in 1994.

1994 was the last year of the "old" British Touring Car Championship. BMW had been dominating, and rear-wheel drive cars were subject to steadily increasing weight penalties in an attempt to allow the front-wheel drive cars to keep up. Two new manufacturers entered the fray that year; Volvo were attempting to shake off their reputation of making boring cars by putting their brand new 850 model in (and they really did avoid being boring; in 1994, the version they raced was the estate, or wagon for those of you in the US; that two-box body provided better aerodynamic performance than the three-box, and they could build a safe rollcage in it) and Alfa-Romeo entered to promote their sporty image. Everything was set fair until it was noted that Alfa-Romeo's cars had spoilers that were being set differently for different tracks. It was only a case of adjusting the height; higher for twisty tracks, lower for high-speed tracks, but it was enough to give them a sharp competitive advantage. While it complied with the letter of the rules, since their special version of the roadgoing base model had a spoiler with a kit of spacers to allow for adjustment, it was quite clearly not within the spirit of the rules. They got hit with weight penalties and had to pick a height and stick with it, but the writing was on the wall. For 1995, all the manufacturers were allowed proper racing-type adjustable spoilers, and because they couldn't stick up past the roofline, the racing brick was no more. Had they entered without Alfa-Romeo causing rules changes, there'd likely have been a far better showing from the racing wagons in their second year, and 1996 might have become known as The Year Everyone Ran Estates. Instead, Alfa-Romeo stole the show. Once everyone was using spoilers, their advantage evaporated; even the 1995 Volvos beat them quite handily.

It sometimes surprises people that Volvos did well in racing, but they've been doing well in racing for many, many years. In the early 1980s, Volvo used a somewhat souped-up version of their 242 coupe in racing; it was based on the US model, but fitted with a larger turbocharger and some other performance modifications. I was recently pointed at a blog post reminiscing about the production and preparation of these vehicles, and one thing that struck me was the blatant dishonesty. The blog post mentions that the larger turbos were temporarily fitted to the first two rows of cars at the ports where the authorities inspected them to make sure the racing version wasn't doing anything dishonest such as having a larger turbo than the road version, and the employee conducting the inspectors had to try and keep them to the first couple of rows. Obviously, it's impossible to completely prevent dishonesty, but that amount of it annoys me.

Now that it's known that these cars were not, in fact, eligible for the categories in which they raced, is there anything that should be done about it? We can't exactly re-run the races, and this all happened almost thirty years ago. Does it still matter? Is there a statute of limitations on cheating?

And now we run into where I think the line between bending the rules and cheating lies. While what Alfa-Romeo did in 1994 was not within the spirit of the rules, it was technically allowable. The other teams were mostly kicking themselves for not spotting that particular loophole first. Meanwhile, what Volvo did in 1983 is definitely cheating. They knowingly violated the letter of the rules. If they wanted the larger turbo in the race car, they had to sell it in the road car, even though it was slow to spool and unpleasant to drive on the road. The point of homologation rules is to make sure that teams aren't just doing things that you can only get away with in race cars, when the intent of the series is to show off racing versions of road cars. So, even though it took place a very long time ago, I'd want note made in the records that, because of information revealed after the fact, the non-conforming Volvos have been disqualified. I guess this is one arena wherein my alignment definitely skews toward Lawful.

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