Much has been made of the moment at which Ferrari’s Felipe Massa gracefully slowed to allow his much-maligned teammate to pass at the German Grand Prix in July.
Quite justifiably, fans were incensed at the perceived injustice of having been robbed of a race between the pair. As a result of the incident and the ensuing furor, the FIA have referred the matter to the World Motor Sports Council next Wednesday.
There are a number of issues that need to be considered, not least of all what team orders encompass. Such an incident can lead to tangents being sought, and deep conversations regarding the very definition of syntax. The background of this incident needs to be investigated thoroughly; what did Ferrari do? Was it wrong? Are there any precedents to which one may refer? And finally, what punishment can be meted out to the Scuderia?
On lap 45, Felipe Massa heard a radio transmission from his Teesside engineer, Rob Smedley, that felt to many like a laboured admission that Fernando Alonso, his teammate, was faster than him.
Following this, Smedley urged Massa to confirm that he understood the meaning of this message. The following lap, both Ferrari’s exited the Turn 5 hairpin, except Massa appeared to ease off and allow Alonso through into the lead. To seasoned F1 observers, the preceding two laps had been a thinly-veiled attempt at manipulating the race result.
The result stood, and the Italian marque completed their second one-two finish of the season in a surprisingly dominant performance. Almost immediately, outcry from all quarters poured into the paddock at what had appeared to be a direct contravention of rule 39.1 of the FIA 2010 Sporting Regulations: “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited.”
Many who had been involved in the sport previously questioned how such a rule could be enforced, and what the exact definition of a team order was.
The FIA deemed that Ferrari had done something wrong, which is why we have an impending hearing in front of the WMSC.
First, there is ambiguity regarding what a team order is; drivers are told to pace themselves during a race, they were and are told to pit unexpectedly in a change of strategy, these can both be construed as team orders, yet they seem to be perfectly harmless in nature.
The background to this is filled with corporate glitterati who offer thousands upon millions of their profits to see their name splashed across a car, who want to see the best result for the team that they are sponsoring. When was the last time that a driver was allowed his own personal sponsorship? Only the very best can hope to get away with such a feat, Schumacher and Senna springing to mind.
The vast majority of a Formula One team’s money (which is spent on driver salaries, car development, research and design) originates from either personal benefactors or multinational corporations who associate themselves with a team of people rather than a separate driver.
On the subject of precedents, one can look back to the Turkish Grand Prix in the early summer for an example of what can happen when team orders are not implemented. Mark Webber, rightly, defends his position against a charging Sebastian Vettel and the two collide. Personal fault aside, Red Bull were ridiculed for their handling of the affair.
On the other end of the spectrum lies the ghost of Austria in 2002. Allowing your teammate to slide past you within 200 metres of the chequered flag, in sporting terms, is an indefensible act.
However, we, and the WMSC, are dealing with the actions of Ferrari in 2010. The bare facts are clear.
Fernando Alonso was ahead (by a moderately large margin) of Felipe Massa in the championships standings, at a time when McLaren appeared to have stumbled somewhat and Red Bull (at least in Germany) were not on the pace. This was an opportunity that absolutely had to be maximised.
The Scuderia were wary of Turkey-gate, and chose to be utterly honest about what they were doing. Asking your drivers to “save fuel” or “turn down their engines” is no less direct in its meaning than effectively asking a driver to move over for his teammate; the difference is that Ferrari were bluntly honest about what they were doing.
Some may ask, why Alonso? Massa had been leading the race on merit, this is true. However, Alonso had been leading his teammate through qualifying, practice, and the preceding 10 races before that, at which point the larger picture must be considered.
The team have already been punished monetarily, yet it remains to be seen what course of action the WMSC will take. In theory, it would be unfair to be punished for the same act twice.
However, theory doesn’t always come to fruition when dealing with judicial events in Formula One. A charge of “bringing the sport into disrepute” can be levelled against the team, and there is the strong possibility that the team may lose the constructor points that it gained as a result of the German one-two.
However, what punishment could or should be apportioned to both Ferrari drivers? None. Felipe Massa can claim that he is employed and paid by his Italian team and that he was following orders, as the majority of employees would probably do.
Alonso, meanwhile, simply drove past a car that was travelling slower than he was. The wisdom of celebrating his victory and claiming that team orders don’t exist shall not be commented on.
The gripe that most fans and observers have is that they were robbed of a race for victory. The race itself was highly uneventful and this was probably a major factor that led to the heightened tensions regarding this incident.
If there had been an abundance of crashes, overtaking galore, the odd rain shower, and most importantly, a different team giving out these orders, what happened would have been far less severe in the eyes of some fans.
The sport is bankrolled by sponsorship and a CEO culture, where there is a strict chain of command. This is how Formula One has been for the past 30 years, thanks in part to the mass commercialisation of the sport. Direct orders that benefit the well-being of the team bank account and final championship classification have been, are, and always will be part of Formula One motor racing.
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