JULY 27, 2010
Time to bin team orders rule?
Ferrari's actions in Sunday's German Grand Prix have caused an outcry from a number of F1 fans, some of whom feel cheated by what they saw.
However, whether or not the World Motor Sport Council takes further action than the $100,000 sanction already imposed on the team, it will do precious little to stamp out team orders. All it will mean is that teams will apply them with a far greater degree of subtlety. Is that what F1 really wants? Far better, in the view of many of the sport's most experienced observers, to get rid of the team orders ban altogether.
That is the view of Bernie Ecclestone, veteran broadcaster Murray Walker and current BBC TV expert Martin Brundle, among many others.
There can be little justification for what Ferrari did in Austria in 2002. Michael Schumacher had dominated the early season and no other team appeared capable of challenging Maranello that year. So it was with disbelief that the world's fans and media witnessed Rubens Barrichello being pulled over to allow Michael Schumacher to take his fifth win in six at a race where Barrichello had been quicker. It was so outrageous because it was so unnecessary.
Schumacher himself didn't appreciate it, this being the second successive year Rubens had moved over for him in Austria (in 2001 it had been over second, not a victory).
"Last year I was sort of involved in the situation because I felt the championship was much more tight," Michael said at the time, "This year I didn't even think about it and before the race, when asked about it, I said that I didn't think there was going to be a team strategy involved. Suddenly they told me he would move over and I'm not very pleased about it either..."
At the time, with no team orders ban in existence, Ferrari was not actually guilty of any offence. What they did do, however, was muck up the podium ceremony when Schumacher ushered Rubens onto the top step, confusing all the attending dignitaries, for which they were fined.
"It was absolutely disgraceful," Flavio Briatore said. "I've never seen anything like it in my time in this business. F1 is much bigger than Ferrari and they should remember it."
Patrick Head thought it was "cynical" and that was the word most commonly expressed, closely followed by "farcical."
The FIA, meanwhile, drew attention to a World Motor Sport Council ruling from 1998. The governing body said: "It is perfectly legitimate for a team to decide that one of its drivers is the championship contender and the other will support him. What is not acceptable, in the world council's view, is any arrangement which interferes with a race and cannot be justified by the relevant team's interest in the championship."
That seems to do just fine and arguably F1's mistake was to subsequently issue a ban on team orders.
In a utopian world, we'd all love to see great drivers in identical cars racing each other to the last corner of every grand prix. But it simply isn't going to happen. Team orders have been a part of the world championship since it began and will remain so, in whatever form they are dressed up.
In Casablanca in 1958 Phil Hill pulled over just before the end and gave his Ferrari team mate Mike Hawthorn second place, which allowed Hawthorn to beat Stirling Moss by one point to become the first British world champion.
In 1964, at the final race in Mexico, Lorenzo Bandini allowed Ferrari team mate John Surtees to overtake him for second place having already collided with and eliminated Surtees' title rival, Graham Hill. Surtees beat Hill to the title by one point. Both cases are arguably much more disagreeable than anything that happened last Sunday.
In England, and probably Brazil, the outrage over Hockenheim is sure to have been much greater than in either Italy or Spain. Interestingly, one of the questions put to Massa after the race on Sunday, was this:
"Felipe, Rubens damaged his reputation a lot in Brazil when he did what you did today. Aren't you worried that you have deeply damaged your image?
"For sure not, for sure not," Massa replied. "I'm very professional and I've showed in my career how professional I am."
Well, he would have been a lot more professional if he hadn't made it quite so obvious but purely from a pride point of view, that was understandable enough. Far better that the team orders rule isn't there at all, then drivers and team personnel are not put in such invidious positions.
On a Monday night UK sports show the matter was headline topic. There was quite an anti-Ferrari backlash but some of the points being made were banal. Someone complained he'd paid over £5k to get to Germany and back with his family and he felt cheated and wouldn't be watching F1 again. Why? He'd still seen a good race. Had he failed to notice that the pole position man was still hard at it but couldn't beat the Ferraris? Why did it honestly matter that Ferrari imposed an entirely logical team order.
Then there was a buffoon who'd bet on Massa to win and thought he'd been robbed. Anyone thick enough to wager that the Ferrari No2, miles behind the No1 in the championship at race 11, is going to beat him, clearly hasn't been watching. He deserves everything that won't be coming to him...
Martin Brundle humorously related a tale about coming back from the race on the same plane as the Red Bull mechanics. They apparently thought it hilarious that a few weeks ago they were getting a load of flak for letting their guys crash into each other, while now Ferrari is taking a massive hit for trying to stop that! Looks like you can't win...
In the Spygate affair, the FIA took away McLaren's constructors' points but left the drivers alone, figuring they were blameless. They may elect to do a similar thing this time. After all, what has Massa done? Ignore the message and he risked being fired. Alonso, too, has done nothing wrong.
In future, it's probably best to scrap the rule. If the FIA doesn't, teams will adopt more subtle measures - a poorly timed pit call, a bit of extra fuel in one of the cars, a 'botched' pit stop, a different engine map. There is any number of ways to slow down a race car. A team orders ban cannot be properly policed, so getting rid of it should at least give us transparency, which has to be better.
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