A day on from the furore over the Ferrari team orders row in the German Grand Prix, it seems to me that there has been a bit of an overreaction, with some sections of the media calling them ‘cheats’ and others calling for them to be banned by the disciplinary arm of the World Motor Sport council.
This is nonsense. Yes, it is a serious situation because they violated a rule which says that team orders are banned. And we should be in no doubt, despite the denials of Alonso that team orders were invoked here. But you have to look at the wider picture and acknowledge that it is a question of degree and that some common sense needs to be applied when sorting this matter out.
No-one was left in any doubt about what was happening by the tone and language of the message to Felipe Massa, nor by his subsequent yielding of the lead to Alonso. It is clear that Ferrari have a case to answer in terms of breaking a rule. They have been fined $100,000 by the stewards in Hockenheim, but further sanctions may follow from the WMSC.
People will of course point to the irony of FIA president Jean Todt presiding over this, given that it was his team order to Rubens Barrichello in 2002 which led to the introduction of the rule. But Todt has separated his position from the disciplinary procedure of the FIA, part of his distinction from the previous regime of Max Mosley. So he will not be sitting in judgement on this one. But that doesn’t mean he can’t be a force for change once the case has been heard. Because change is needed here.
The outcry back in 2002 was against the cynicism of the decision to give the win to Schumacher when he had been outclassed by Barrichello all weekend. It was very early in the season and Schumacher was already well clear in the points in an unbeatable car.
This situation is different on many counts. leaving aside the rule specifically banning team orders for a second, the championship is well advanced and it is closely fought. Ferrari feel aggrieved that they are at least 30 points worse off with Alonso than they should have been, largely due to some stewards decisions which have gone against them, rightly or wrongly. Massa too has lost points, but hasn’t been on the kind of form Alonso’s been on, so the Spaniard is clearly the one to go for the title, if Ferrari can only get him in the game.
He was faster than Massa all weekend and qualified in front of him, but then lost the start to the Brazilian and then couldn’t get ahead of him in the pit stops. If Ferrari had wanted to do a subtle switch, a slightly delayed pit stop for Massa would have done the trick. A second or two is all that it would have needed.
A big part of the problem here is the way it was handled, with Rob Smedley being given the task of giving his driver the bad news. It should have been Stefano Domenicali, the team boss, or Chris Dyer, the senior engineer. Smedley’s close relationship with Massa meant that he would inevitably struggle to deliver the message impartially and when he felt obliged afterwards to apologise – “Good lad, keep it going, sorry” – it sealed the conviction in our minds that this was a team order.
Eddie Irvine, who has been on the receiving end of a few “move over” orders in his time, said last night that he felt Smedley and Massa had overblown it to make a point and in doing so had let the team down. It has certainly landed them in hot water.
But the wider question is, should F1 have this rule banning team orders, should teams be able to act in the interests of the championship and are moves like this acceptable in some situations?
Think back to 2007, when Massa moved over in Brazil to let Raikkonen win the championship or the following year when the roles were reversed – did anyone object then? No, so that means that fans can understand there are occasions when teams do need some mechanism for shuffling the order, it’s just a question of the circumstances.
Given this, much of the hype in the media today is just that. It’s not race fixing and it’s not even in the same league as the Renault fix in Singapore with Nelson Piquet (which was ironically also to benefit Alonso).
There is a case to answer before the WMSC, but I would like to see the FIA take this opportunity to review the team orders rule and I would like to see FOTA stand behind Ferrari and come up with some proposals as to how this rule can best be adapted to work in the best interests of teams and of fans in modern F1.
It’s all very well for Christian Horner to say that he lets his drivers race, but come Brazil or Abu Dhabi when, for example, Hamilton is leading the championship and Vettel has a chance of beating him, if only his team mate, who’s well behind on points lets him through, are you telling me that he won’t make the switch? Of course he will and Webber will know before the start of the race what the score is.
People would expect it and understand it. The problem comes when it’s considered too early in the season. Perhaps the rule should be that there can be no team orders until the final third of the championship? That would be a simple solution.
But to reinforce the rule that team orders are banned full stop, would be a terrible mistake. It would create yet another artificiality, which would be more damaging to the sport in the long run.
Please send in your suggestions for how the FIA should handle the hearing and what changes if any should be brought in to the team orders rule. As always I will forward any that I feel have some merit on to the teams and to the FIA.