When are team orders not team orders?

Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, European GP 2002

Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher, European GP 2002 

 © The Cahier Archive

NOW here is a strange situation. Six weeks ago everyone from Patagonia to Phuket was ranting and raving about how disgusting it was that Ferrari had indulged in the use of team orders at the Austrian Grand Prix.

And yet at the European Grand Prix there was not a hint of complaint when Ferrari instructed its drivers to hold station, allowing Rubens Barrichello to win the race from Michael Schumacher.

In both cases, team orders were applied.

What was the difference?

One might be tempted to argue that no-one really minds about team orders so long they work in favor of the underdog and give us a different winner. Michael Schumacher has won so much that to see him being given another victory (in a rather clumsy way it must be said) did not appeal to the fans. Now Barrichello has a victory and perhaps he feels that this is a fair exchange but one has to say that the Nurburgring race was not a very satisfying result as it was clear that Michael was not trying to overtake his team mate on this occasion. One could argue (which Ferrari lawyers will probably do tomorrow in Paris) that the two results balance each other out but what is done is done and the public reaction to the result in Austria was an indication of how people felt.

The FIA may wish to sweep the whole thing under the carpet now that some think that justice has been done but is it wise to forget the post-Austria reaction? And is it wise to say publicly that the public reaction was wrong? Fortunately the issue is not really one of team orders but rather of bringing the sport into disrepute. Clause 151c of the FIA International Sporting Code is the point at issue and it will be up to Ferrari to convince the World Council that it has not been responsible for "any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motor sport generally".

That is not going to be an easy thing to achieve because it is very clear from the reaction of the public after Austria that the interests of motor sport were damaged by the staged finish. One can argue that team orders have always been a part of the sport but that does not address the issue. The world has changed. Cloth caps and riding mechanics were part of the sport once but attitudes towards safety have had to change. The reaction to the accidents at Imola in 1994 showed that there was a need for the FIA to try to avoid such things in the future and since then the federation has done great things to make the sport safer.

Team orders are a complex issue because any rule can be circumnavigated if a team really wants to dictate the order in which its drivers finish in a race. After Austria there were some who said that the public need to educated. This is wrong. The teams need to be educated so that when they do feel the need to switch their drivers (or not, as the case may be) they do it in a fashion which does not create uproar and accusations that the sport is fixed.

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