Monday, July 26, 2010

Only Following Orders

If there is a God then, at least when it comes to the world of Formula 1, he would appear to have a dry sense of humour. Eight years on from the Austrian GP fiasco in which Ferrari's instruction to Rubens Barrichello to pull over and allow Michael Schumacher to win the race after one of those rare afternoons on which he simply had no answer to the Brazilian, it is Ferrari who have been the first team to fall foul of the ban on team orders which resulted from events in Austria that day. And who should be in charge of the governing body now, but Jean Todt, the man who was in charge at Ferrari on that day.

Whatever some people might have you believe, team orders to drivers were not invented by Jean Todt on 12 May 2002. Back before the war, when pit to car radio was but a gleam in the future's eye, Alfred Neubauer devised a complex system of signals to send messages and instructions to his drivers when he was Mercedes' team manager, and in the 50s when he ran the Mercedes F1 team, it was always clear that Juan Manuel Fangio was its lead driver, and where they found themselves 1-2 (which was most of the time, given Mercedes' margin of superiority), his team mate Stirling Moss was not expected to race him. Later, in the 1970s, Ferrari would have a clear policy of having a number 1 and 2 driver, ensuring that Jody Scheckter took the 1979 title despite the fact that many reckon Gilles Villeneuve was the faster driver. Three years later, at Imola in 1982, it was what Villeneuve perceived to be Didier Pironi's disregard for team orders which led to their falling out. More recently, Mclaren twice ordered David Coulthard to move over for Mika Hakkinen (at Jerez in 1997 and then again in Australia the following year (in both cases, Mclaren's justification for this was that they were merely righting a wrong done to Hakkinen in the pitstop procedure) while ordering drivers running 1-2 to hold station and not fight each other has long been common-place.

So what was different about Austria 2002? In the past, team orders had been used when there was a championship at stake and one driver was in clear contention for the title while the other was not or where a team were struggling to make their mark and secure a first victory (e.g. Jordan at Spa in 1998), but in May 2002, it was really quite apparent that there was no way that anyone but Schumacher and Ferrari were going to win the world title. By that time, he had won four of the opening five races and there was no realistic challenger. Equally, it was quite clear that, on that particular weekend, he was not the equal of Barrichello. He had been outqualified by Rubens, and had been a good quarter of a minute behind him at the point when Barrichello was ordered to move over by Jean Todt. Whether it was because of a lurking paranoia at the centre of Ferrari, a sense that they had to make absolutely certain that their lead driver maximised his points haul at every opportunity in order to absolutely guard against a (frankly rather unlikely) title charge by a Mclaren or Williams driver, or whether it was done at the behest of Schumacher, a mind-game aimed at destroying Barrichello's will to race him, is not entirely clear. Either way, it was uncalled for, it caused a media storm, and it helped to bring about the 'team orders' rule.

What happened at Hockenheim last weekend doesn't really fall into the same category. For one thing, Ferrari are locked in a battle for the drivers championship with rivals from Red Bull and Mclaren and, with Alonso considerably better placed than Massa in the driver's championship, unlike their major rivals, they really only have one dog left in the fight especially as Alonso has almost always seemed the quicker of the two this season. For another, while Barrichello plain beat Schumacher in a straight fight, only the vagaries of fuel strategy, the near impossibility of overtaking in similar machinery and the fact that Alonso had been victim of some very dubious driving from Vettel at the start had enabled Massa to get into the lead in the first place. What happened at Hockenheim is what has happened in F1 since time immemorial, until the ban on 'team orders' came in eight years ago.

Except, of course, the ban is all but unenforceable. What got Ferrari into trouble last weekend was their lack of subtlety. The fact that Massa's engineer, Rob Smedley, apologised to his driver after he let Alonso through, and the breathtakingly obvious way in which Massa did it, short-shifting to a ridiculous degree on the exit of the hairpin, made it clear to the world exactly what has happened. Because, while the letter of the law is that "team orders which interfere with the result of a race are prohibited", the rule is really "teams must not take the piss." There are plenty of ways in which teams can arrange that their drivers switch position. Sometimes it can be done simply by clever use of pit strategy. Under the current rules, the driver who is called in for tyres first will tend to make up time on a driver called in later as he will have the same fuel load and fresh rubber. So if you want to swap your drivers around before the pit-stops, all you need to do is call your preferred driver into the pits a few laps earlier.

Where all that is required is that drivers are instructed to hold station and not race each other as, perhaps, happened between the two Mclaren drivers at Istanbul, it's even easier. You can tell them to conserve fuel, or go easy on their brakes, or whatever, and, provided the drivers know the code, are aware what that message means, the rest of the world need never know. And indeed, it's not even clear whether such instructions are actually against the rules. Telling one driver to move over to let another one through is fairly clearly 'interfering with the results of a race' but is telling drivers to go steady and bring the cars home?

Even if the decision requires to be made too late in the race to be done via pit strategy (at Hockenheim, Ferrari might have been reluctant to compromise Massa's race until they were sure that it would be Alonso and not Vettel who was running behind him after the pitstops) there are other ways of doing it. A codeword a touch more subtle than "Alonso is faster than you", especially if the driver is willing to cede the position by, for example, missing his braking point into the hairpin on one lap, might leave us all wondering if there had in fact been team orders, but we'd never know for sure. Of course, Massa probably wouldn't be too happy with such an arrangement. If he's going to have to give up the race, he'd probably rather the world knew it.

I don't really see what alternative the FIA had but to penalise Ferrari. The rules are quite clear: Team orders are forbidden. If there are all sorts of subtle, covert ways of imposing team orders that have been going on ever since the rule came in, so be it - when it is done as blatantly as it was at Hockenheim, the governing body have to do something if they are to retain any credibility. And penalising the drivers seems somehow unfair: After all, Alonso simply did what any driver in the same situation would do: he saw a door open in front of him and he walked right through it. Penalising Massa for obeying a team order would be even more unfair. That said, a $100,000 fine for a team like Ferrari probably won't act as much of a deterrent. By F1 standards, it's a pretty cheap way of buying points for their title contender.

The question is whether, in the long term, the rule does more harm than good. When there are so many ways in which the teams can work around it, so many ways in which they can camouflage the use of team orders, does it do more damage to the sport to ban them than it does to permit them? Is it perhaps better that what happened last weekend at Hockenheim be permitted than that Ferrari had choreographed things more subtly so the world would never have known that Massa had not simply been beaten fair and square. And where a championship is at stake, and only one driver in a given team is in with a shot at winning it, is it really so unreasonable to allow a team to ask the driver who is out of contention to move over to let the one who can take the title maximise his points tally? And what about the situation where the drivers are not fighting for the lead, but for fourth or fifth place, and the guy behind looks quicker - better placed to take the fight to the guys ahead? It's not a purely hypothetical problem - it's arguably exactly the problem that Ferrari faced when a delayed Alonso cruised up behind Massa in the Australian Grand Prix earlier this year. One for Jean Todt to untangle. Appropriately enough, since the whole knotty problem is arguably of his making....

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Anonymous Lobo said...

I agree Ferrari should have handled this one more subtle. Now they're under fire and for a good reason. It is an uncomfortable position for all the involved.

6:49 AM  

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