Yesterday’s German Grand Prix has brought the elephant in the room – that elephant being team orders – back into conversation among F1 fans, professionals, pundits and the media alike.
Indeed, the reactions have said plenty. Commentators were left pondering how Ferrari would wrangle its way out of its drivers switching positions in front of a TV audience of millions. A TV audience that was marvelling at Felipe Massa’s strongest performance of the season, ready to claim a poetic win exactly a year after his life-threatening smash, was instead left disheartened.
The casual observer might be left pondering whether F1 is truly a sport. The more seasoned fan – perhaps more familiar with the scope and history of F1 – might view this differently. It is indeed understandably, and acceptable, that fans from all spectrums will view yesterday’s race very differently…
There are indeed two sides to the controversy that exists in the wake of Fernando Alonso passing Massa to assume the lead of the German Grand Prix, reinvigorating the Spaniard’s championship campaign that, just a few races ago, looked dead and buried.
Assume a pragmatic, and dare I say cold-blooded, approach and you should understand that Ferrari’s goal is to bring home the Drivers’ and Constructors’ championships. The order of the 1-2 finish makes no difference to the Constructors’ Championship outcome – a 43-point haul is indeed very useful to the team at this stage of the season and with nearly a 100-point gap to McLaren – but the order of the finish makes a big difference to the Drivers’ title!
While both drivers retain a mathematical chance of taking the Drivers’ Championship, it was Alonso’s more considerable points’ haul to Massa’s that makes the Spaniard the anointed one to challenge for the Drivers’ title, and justifiably so.
Since the Michael Schumacher era, Ferrari has always adopted a numbers game policy, and their actions – while they will continue to vociferously deny ordering their drivers to swap places – were true to form here. On paper, it is mathematically understandable and acceptable, however cold-blooded and unethical it may seem to be.
However, one must not forget that there is no prize for second best, or “first of the losers”, as Ron Dennis once so aptly put it. There is a status and prestige attached to a race victory to which a mere podium place can never compare. Basic F1 statistics record the number of driver victories, not the number of times a driver finished runner-up. It’s when the team orders deny a driver a race victory that the sense of injustice is perhaps more profound.
Team orders have existed – and will probably continue to – for decades in Formula 1. Recall the 1950s when Peter Collins surrendered his race-leading car to Juan Manuel Fangio so the great Argentine could pursue (and win) another Drivers’ Championship, all while sacrificing his own title aspirations.
Recall the likes of Ronnie Peterson and Gilles Villeneuve trailing under the rear wings of their respective team-mates – Mario Andretti and Jody Scheckter – in the late 1970s as they supported the lead driver’s ambitions of chasing championship glory. And they did this all the while sacrificing their own championship ambitions. Sadly for Ronnie and Gilles, both would succumb on the race track before either would taste the success of an F1 championship.
Recall more modern instances where drivers have sacrificed race wins for their team-mates’ championship tilts: David Coulthard for Mika Hakkinen at the 1998 Australian Grand Prix (pictured left); Mika Salo for Eddie Irvine at the 1999 German Grand Prix; and most contentiously, Rubens Barrichello for Michael Schumacher at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix.
On the flipside, recall instances where team orders were betrayed, potentially costing the victim a championship, or (you could extrapolate) their life. Recall Carlos Reutemann refusing to cede the race lead to Alan Jones at the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix, ruling the Australian out of mathematical contention for a second crack at the championship by season’s end. Also remember Rene Arnoux refusing to relinquish his lead of the 1982 French Grand Prix to team-mate Alain Prost, a misjudgement which potentially cost the little Professor his first championship title. And don’t forget Didier Pironi’s betrayal of Gilles Villeneuve at San Marino in 1982, where he ignored team orders to stay behind the French-Canadian and pinched the race win on the final lap.
I’ll play devil’s advocate and cite two seasons where, arguably, team orders should have been imposed. The absence of team orders in 1986 (Williams) and 2007 (McLaren) saw each team lose the Drivers’ championships in those respective seasons, despite their superiority of their cars. All because their drivers kept pinching points off one another.
It was indeed the Barrichello-Schumacher incident in 2002 that prompted the hastily-created FIA ban on team orders, although in effect this has done nothing to stop them from happening. I can easily cite examples from the 2005 season where Renault issued coded statements to Giancarlo Fisichella to force him to move aside for team-mate Fernando Alonso, as happened in Canada and Turkey. But the FIA sat on its hands and didn’t question the now-commonly used “your team-mate is quicker” sound-bite we hear on the radio.
The difference between these instances and yesterday’s rests on one simple fact: yesterday’s affected the result of the race win. And in a nub, that’s what’s got everyone’s blood boiling.
If faced with a hypothetical scenario as a team manager, I would probably look to exercise the same option if it meant that the team was in the best position to maximise its chances for the championships.
But with the current rules banning team orders, how would I exercise it?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t take the ham-fisted approach that Ferrari did, with a very obvious switching of positions and then an inconsistent message being delivered by the drivers and team management. That Fernando’s approach came across as so arrogant as to impress that his win had nothing to do with Massa’s moving aside irked the press and the fans even more.
Indeed, it is Ferrari’s arrogance and sheer bloody-mindedness in spite of the wealth of evidence that it continues to deny it pulled the switch.
The rules were clearly written to police and ban team orders, but the FIA (until now) has done a shoddy job of policing it, and I would be amazed that a Jean Todt-run body would find fault with a practice he implemented with such regularity during his time running the show at Ferrari.
Has Ferrari broken the rules? More than likely. Does their alleged disregard of the rules show them to be thumbing their noses at the governing body? Almost certainly.
How the FIA and the World Motor Sports Council responds to this is going to set the precedent for years to come. If they penalise Ferrari heavily, they will look foolish for their years of inaction where team orders blatantly occurred post-2002. Let Ferrari off scot-free, and it then sends the message to all teams that it can disregard the letter and spirit of the rules and get slapped with a feather for doing so.
A $100,000 fine is a drop in the ocean for the Scuderia. You can’t even buy an entry-level new Ferrari for that money.
But at the end of the day, I understand and accept that Formula 1 is a team sport, and there will be times when allowing your drivers free reign to race each other can backfire just as badly as when you try to manage the situation too closely. Just ask Red Bull after the Turkish Grand Prix.
What I’d simply ask is that the teams not treat the average fan like a complete moron when they’re going about it.