Thursday 9 September 2010

FIA get it right on Ferrari and team orders

This may come as a surprise to you, but the FIA got it right today in their ruling on Ferrari's team orders in the German race earlier this year.

The World Motor Sports Council decided not to add further punishment to the stewards' $100,000 fine handed to Ferrari at the event itself. Better still, they announced that the team order ban will be reviewed. Let's hope that this is the beginning of the end of the drawn out 'team order ban era' of F1.

Don't get me wrong, if I could wave a magic wand and make team orders disappear from F1 then I would. I'd much rather see team mates battle on the track than have the outcome decided by their pit wall. I also appreciate that to the uninitiated (and the pure) it would seem tremendously unfair for a team to ask a driver to give up a position. But team orders have always been part of the sport. As has been documented, it used to be not uncommon back in the 'golden age' of racing when men were men etc etc for drivers to go so far as to give up their cars for team mates who had broken down. Indeed, Peter Collins in the final race of the 1956 season even went so far as to give up on a chance of winning the championship himself so that team mate Juan Manuel Fangio could take over his car.

The team order ban was only brought in as a knee-jerk reaction to an egregious case in Austria 2002, and it owed more to pandering to public opinion than to the sport. Team orders are an inescapable part of F1. Teams invest lots of money and time to win championships, and winning comes higher in their list of priorities than the 'show' alone, which is the way it should be in a competitive endeavour. In the pursuit of this, teams will occasionally feel it necessary to swap the positions of their cars out on track. One has to accept team orders as part of F1 or find something else to do with their Sunday afternoons. Further, any attempt to ban team orders is unenforceable, and forces teams into various charades when team orders are applied, as was seen at Hockenheim.

Every team in F1 practices team orders: as David Coulthard said, everyone who says they don't is lying. We all of course know of situations where drivers, to effect the giving up of a position to their team mate, have been told to 'save fuel', or to pit sooner than expected, or have a slightly longer pit stop than usual, or communicated to give up a position via mysterious code words. I don't see how these are better than what Ferrari did at Hockenheim. Indeed, they're probably worse: part of Ferrari's problem was that they were too open about the whole thing (what with their apologising down the radio and the like). I've no idea what moral is to be drawn from those who have argued that Ferrari should have been more subtle about it. Lifting the team order ban will allow everyone in F1 to be transparent about their application of team orders, and to explain and to defend the practice like adults, and to not treat us like idiots. And it'll also save us from hypocrites like Eddie Jordan getting holier than thou.

And you know what, if it had been me sitting on the pit wall at Hockenheim I would have made exactly the same call as Ferrari did. Let's face it, Ferrari's only hope of a championship this year is from Alonso winning the drivers' title. Those who say 'yeah but if they hadn't swapped positions in Germany Massa would be only x points behind Alonso' rather miss the point. It's not overtaking Alonso that Ferrari are concerned about, it's overtaking Webber, Hamilton et al at the top of the table. Alonso has a chance of doing this. Massa, realistically, doesn't.

Additionally, Alonso was clearly faster than Massa from the first turn of a wheel in Germany (it was only down to the well-documented difficulties of passing in F1 that Alonso continued to be behind), as he's been faster than Massa almost everywhere this season.

And while most of the hand-wringing about this issue has been honorable, I can't help that suspect that a significant proportion of it reflects some people's negative predispositions of Alonso and/or Ferrari more than anything else.

As I said, the FIA got it right today. They upheld the fine, Ferrari did after all break a rule. But otherwise they laid off. And let's hope they eventually put the team order ban into the dustbin of history.

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