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AUGUST 31, 2010

Time for 'team orders'?

The outcome of next week's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) verdict on Ferrari's activities in the German GP - where Felipe Massa moved over to allow Fernando Alonso to win - will be awaited with even greater interest following last weekend's Belgian GP.

Max Mosley's recent comments suggesting that Massa and Alonso should lose their points were surprising in the extreme. First, because you might think it highly inappropriate that a member of the FIA Senate should proffer an opinion so close to an examination by the governing body. And second, because the team orders issue seems to be the subject of more U-turns than an auto test.

In relatively recent years, there was a bit of a rumpus with a suspicion that McLaren was in league with Williams at Jerez in 1997, when the championship was decided in favour of Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve and Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard finished 1-2 for McLaren. But not too big, because it was assumed that Sauber, and Norberto Fontana in particular, had been assisting Michael Schumacher and Ferrari.

It led to a 1998 clarification from the WMSC which 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."

Elsewhere in the sporting regulations was a directive that "team orders that are against the interests of competition are forbidden."

Neither of those regulations would have been sufficient to knobble Ferrari in Germany. But then, in the aftermath of the ructions which followed the team's crass decision to have Rubens Barrichello needlessly hand Austria 2002 victory to Schumacher, came the current rule, Article 39.1 of the sporting regulations, which says: "Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited."

That might be the letter of the law but, in the paddock, teams have generally followed the previous rule, understanding that they can run their own cars as they wish provided they don't do anything that makes the sport look silly, as Austria 02 was adjudged to have done.

You could argue that what Ferrari did in Germany was nothing that anyone who understands the sport did not expect, and that it was hardly against the interests of competition as it was furthering the interests of Alonso who, realistically, is the team's only driver with a decent shot at the world championship.

Mosley's logic is hard to follow. Why should the drivers lose their points? What have they done? Massa may well have been in breach of contract if he had not let Alonso by after it was clear that an 'instruction' had been given. Okay, a lawyer might be able to argue that any contractual requirement that breaches the law is unenforceable, but would Felipe really have wanted to go there?

And what has Alonso done? Surely, if Ferrari is adjudged to have erred, then fines or loss of constructors' points is the fair way, as Mosley himself concluded when he let the McLaren drivers off over Spygate. To penalise the Ferrari drivers now would be very poor double standards.

The sensible thing would probably be a larger fine for embarrassing the sport (disrepute) under the existing regulations, as in 2002, when Ferrari was fined $1m (but it had to be dressed up as a punishment for confusing the dignitaries at the podium ceremony) and then an immediate rule clarification pointing out that henceforth you can indeed favour your world title contender.

If, instead, we get Alonso removed from the title fight and a message that under no circumstances will orders of any kind be permitted, it is going to have a big impact on the final races of this season. There are plenty of ways to slow down a racing car if you aren't permitted to do it overtly.

Right on cue, Spa delivered a situation where the team orders question is being asked at both Red Bull and McLaren. Jenson Button is now 35 points behind Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel is 28 points adrift of Mark Webber, with six races remaining.

The McLaren situation will probably be self-regulating, with Hamilton appearing to have Button's measure much of the time, but at Red Bull it is not so clear-cut. Vettel, in most eyes, is the team's favoured son, but the young German has made errors in four of the last seven races and it is clear that the team's interests would probably be best served by favouring Webber unless the Australian posts a DNF in the next couple of races.

Hamilton denied in Belgium that he expected any preferential treatment in the championship run-in. Webber, however, put things slightly differently. "McLaren have won many championships so they have a pretty good trophy cabinet," he said. "Red Bull have a good trophy cabinet too, but not like McLaren's, so it depends on how hungry we are to try and do that... Maybe there is a different strategy compared to McLaren. I'm not sure -- it's still too early at the moment, but it's not far away, I'd say..."

In other words, if you want to win the championship, get behind me. He then pointed out, just in case that wasn't clear enough, "anyone who beats Lewis in the championship is doing well." Lewis, of course, is now more than 30 points clear of Vettel with Monza expected to be a strong track for McLaren. Trying to retrieve a 30-point plus deficit to Hamilton over five races is going to be no easy task, was probably the subtext of what Webber was saying.

Webber's Spa pole was his fifth of the season but Vettel has claimed seven. You can bet your bottom dollar that Sebastian will not be up for helping Mark unless he is ordered to do so, and you can bet that he will resist any such suggestion until it is mathematically impossible for him to win the title.

But let's suppose that situation does arise. The WMSC's Ferrari decision on September 8 is going to decide quite how those orders would be imposed - overtly or clandestinely.