A manipulated sport

The way the race and the incidents during it were managed raise doubts that could see F1 lose some credibility again, as it was seen around the world.

–Ferrari statement, 27 June 2010

It’s a shame, not for us because this is racing, but for all the fans who came here to watch a manipulated race.

–Fernando Alonso, 27 June 2010

I don’t consider Formula 1 a sport anymore.

–Fernando Alonso, 10 September 2006

I don’t mind team orders in F1. We know they exist. F1 is a team sport, not just a contest between drivers. It is always important to bear that in mind.

But F1 is also a sport, and those involved should always remember that. Ferrari in particular should be sensitive to this matter, and instantly comparisons were drawn with the scandal of Austria 2002.

This was nothing like as bad as Austria 2002 — when the move was made at the very last corner, with Rubens Barrichello having dominated over his team mate Michael Schumacher all weekend. But the way it was executed still left a sour taste in the mouth.

Today is exactly one year on from Felipe Massa’s horrific accident in Hungary, and he was having a fantastic race in Germany. He found himself under intense pressure from Fernando Alonso for a period. But Alonso failed to capitalise on his chances, and Massa put the hammer down to extend the lead.

The way the team orders were executed after Massa had established his right to win the race was the problem. It insulted our intelligence.

I think most can understand why Alonso would be favoured for the Championship. But, as in Austria 2002, it is too early in the season to be switching drivers round. There is still half of the season to go, and anything can happen. (I am sure that if team orders were not in play in 1999, Eddie Irvine would have won the Drivers’ Championship.)

The way Rob Smedley relayed his instructions to Felipe Massa left us in no doubt as to what was really going on. With that, he has left the door wide open for punishment.

Much of the post-race debate has focussed on the rules regarding team orders. My view on this is clear: there should be no rule on team orders. As David Coulthard consistently pointed out, there is no way to police it. F1 is a team sport, it always has been. There are team orders, there always have been, and there always will be.

The issue is not whether team orders should exist or whether they are legal or not. What is key, though, is that a team should always remember at the end of the day there are viewers out there upon whom F1 depends. As Fota and the like keep on telling us, it’s all about the show!

The problem was that Ferrari executed a team order in the most blatant way possible. Then they tried to deny that there were any team orders. In doing this, they treated the fans with complete contempt. They acted as though we are idiots. This is what has caused the outcry.

Ferrari have been fined $100,000 for their actions today, and the matter has been referred to the World Motor Sport Council. I think a fine alone is a fair enough punishment. The result should stand. It is not the switch that was offensive — it was the way they went about it.

The embarrassment Ferrari have caused themselves should be punishment enough. If they acted in a more noble and sporting way, then people would start taking them more seriously when they start talking about “manipulated” results and how “Formula 1 is not a sport anymore”.

11 comments

  1. First goes first: it was an absolutely embarrassing show the one Ferrari gave us this last weekend. No doubt about it.

    But I have to disagree with you in this: to me, just because you give team orders in a more subtle way, doesn’t make you any better. It’s still unethical, and a team should be punished for breaking a rule, not for doing it awkardly. Just my opinion, of course.

    What about McLaren and the 2008 Germany GP? Here’s the video (from minute 2), you can see how Heikki lets Lewis pass him in a non very subtle way:

    http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x67u6e_f1-german-gp-2008-high-definition_auto

  2. And here the declarations of Ron Dennis:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2008/jul/21/formulaone.motorsports

    Let me extract this paragraph: “Lewis was nearly a second quicker than Heikki through the race and when he was told Lewis was quicker he just let him past.”

    The situation sounds familiar to me, guess the english media didn’t make a scandal of it that time. Wonder why…

    Best regards, Duncan.

    (Sorry I had to split the comment, woudn’t let me publish because of the two hyperlinks, I guess).

  3. As far as I can see, Ferrari had neither right nor cause to act as it did. Even if you’d missed the race and all of Massa’s radio, the combination of Alonso being told nothing was wrong with Massa’s car on the post-chequered flag radio and the official line being Massa changing three gears at once (only possible to attempt in a F1 car if it’s running an illegal gearbox) would be enough to prove that Massa let through Alonso for improper purposes. That might not be enough to get hit with the “team order” rule (that requires the reasonable suspicion that the outwardly-straightforward statement was a coded order, which can be done using the FIA lap chart and a simple graph), but it would be enough for 151c and risk exclusion for breaches of technical regulations (which as far as I know Ferrari hadn’t even breached – it was simply a mistaken statement made in the effort to defend the higher-ups that did not deserve such protection).

    There are, aside from the strict rule (which is pretty simple to enforce with the evidence the FIA can access, at least for as long as teams insist on doing these things on track and not, for instance, via pit stop “errors”) , there are a number of conventions when teams in particular situations (usually but not always related to only one driver being capable of challenging for the title) have a blind eye turned to them concerning team orders. It’s wrong, but then the same blind eye is afforded to some who breach Article 30.7 (which says that all off-track excursions that gain any sort of advantage are banned – had that been in unmitigated force, half the grid would have had drive-through penalties for using Turn 1 run-off to avoid a first-lap collision!) These conventions are why little attention is paid to the Hamilton/Kovalainen swaparounds of late 2008, or indeed to a large number of other ones that have occurred down the years. Note that the swaparounds that occurred before the mid-1980s (the first point where there was enough equality in all the main teams to make No. 1/2 set-ups look passé) are another matter entirely: attitudes were completely different back then and subservience was expected and lauded – if done honourably.

    What Ferrari did wrong was disregard both rule and convention to do a pointless swapabout. Not only has it got itself into hot water with the FIA, but it’s needlessly endangered relationships within the team (even Alonso didn’t look happy after the race finished and he was the one who supposedly gained from all this)

  4. Can, Yes, sorry about that — your original comments ended up in the moderation queue. Any comment with two or more links needs to be approved by me.

    Alianora, thanks also for your in-depth viewpoint.

    I think there are a few more differences between the Hamilton / Kovalainen situation in 2008 and what happened this year at Hockenheim.

    First of all — although McLaren would not have said this in so many words — Lewis Hamilton was unquestionably the number 1 driver. They were in the lucky position that the gulf in talent between Kovalainen and Hamilton was such that they almost never had to do anything to ensure that “number 1” was ahead of “number 2” — he usually was anyway. The fact that the Hockenheim incident was caused by a strategy gaffe underlines that. So at McLaren there was a clear pecking order, dictated as much by natural talent as politics.

    There is also the matter that Hamilton was fighting at the very sharp end of the Championship, while Kovalainen was not in the running at all.

    The situation with Ferrari is slightly different. Up until yesterday, as far as I’m aware, there was no ‘number 1’ Ferrari driver. You might expect Alonso to become a number 1 by default, but there has been no indication so far. For instance, Massa’s car number is 7 and Alonso’s is 8, suggesting that, on paper, Massa is the number 1, albeit not necessarily in practice.

    The gulf between Alonso and Massa is not as large either, and while Massa was quite far behind Alonso in the Championship, Alonso was much further behind still than the Championship leaders. This makes it less of clear-cut situation than with Hamilton.

    Then — and here is perhaps the crucial point for me — there is the fact that Ferrari allowed them to race earlier on in the race. We know it says on the back of the ticket that motorsport is dangerous. We saw a stark reminder only a couple of races ago when Webber flew through the air just how dangerous racing can be.

    At Hockenheim, both Ferrari drivers took risks as they raced each other. One of them could have made a mistake that caused a big crash. But if Ferrari’s secret gameplan all along was to let Alonso ahead anyway, this was essentially endangering the lives of the drivers for nothing. Yes, drivers sign up to motor racing knowing the dangers. But that is when they know that the only way to pass is to race wheel-to-wheel. Otherwise, they don’t take unnecessary risks. But Alonso and Massa were genuinely racing.

    Not only did this cheat the drivers, but it cheated the fans too, because it meant that what was saw earlier was effectively a fake racing situation. We didn’t know it at the time, but it all counted for nothing. That is what I think caused the big stink. If Massa just let Alonso by during or after the first phase of pitstops, no-one would be complaining about team orders.

    The issue is that Ferrari tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes. They tried to treat the fans as though they are idiots, which is why everyone is offended.

    What McLaren did may have been team orders still, but they went about it in a more honest way. Everyone knew that Kovalainen would let Hamilton through, and he did. Of course Ron Dennis would deny team orders — but that is just because of the rule banning it. Otherwise, it was quite a transparent situation.

    What Ferrari did was a completely botched cover-up. We were made to believe that Massa and Alonso were genuinely racing each other, but it transpired to be all for nothing.

  5. Thanks for your answers, but my question about why the british media didn’t slam a british team for giving team orders benifitng a british drivers was kind of a rethorical one. Just my opinion, of course I respect yours.

    Of course, the situation and circumstances were different in both cases. But, to me, they were both clear cases of team orders. As simple as that.

    Again, I don’t see this like you, Duncan: the way McLaren did it was more subtle, but I wouldn’t use the word “honest” to define it, that’s for sure. To me, the aesthetic doesn’t affect the ethic when giving team orders.

    Anyway, always a pleasure to exchange opinions in your blog, Duncan.

  6. Can, the British media didn’t blast the many examples of Ferrari team orders between 2003 and last weekend either, so there is fair play at work within the British media, even if their definition of legitimate team orders differs from yours.

    Also, I think by “honest” Duncan meant “they made sure we knew what would happen from the outset” rather than “it was right” or “it was within the rules”. The word does admittedly admit of all three definitions (and others), but the first of those seems to fit the context best. Ferrari’s act came out of the blue, whereas McLaren’s had received quite a bit of foreshadowing.

  7. I think the difference is actually that team orders in McLaren’s case were utterly uncontroversial, mainly for the reason I previously stated which was that Hamilton was genuinely McLaren’s only real Championship contender.

    Although Alonso is the more likely of the Ferrari drivers to win the Championship, Massa is still viewed as having a decent chance as well. After all, he has been Ferrari’s main Championship contender for the past two seasons as well.

    It is the impact on the Championship that makes team orders viewed more strongly in this case — because it effectively ended Massa’s chance of winning the title. In 2008, Kovalainen ended it by himself by not being good enough.

    So instead of team orders for the race, Ferrari effectively enacted team orders for the championship, which is what makes it a much more serious decision — a completely pivotal moment for Massa’s season, perhaps even his Ferrari career.

    That is what I mean by honesty. No-one really believed that Kovalainen had a shot at the title, so in that sense everyone knew up-front what would happen — logic dictated it. Of course, McLaren had an easy decision because it was made for them by the realities of Kovalainen’s performance. Ferrari had to make a decision, which is what makes it more controversial.

    The British media can be accused of hypocrisy. You know that I don’t have much time for the biases demonstrated on a regular basis by certain British media outlets. Perhaps I have become immune to it! But I do view this incident as much more serious than any other team orders we have seen in recent years.

    In my view, comparing it to Austria 2002 is completely over the top though. This was nothing like as bad as that.

  8. Perhaps a solution to all this buggering about would be for the teams to explicitly declare their “Number one” and “Number two” drivers at the beginning of the season.

    This would have several benefits:

    1) If it is well understood that one driver has priority in any situation the likes of which we saw in Hockenheim, neither the drivers nor the spectators will be surprised when they switch positions.

    2) “Team orders” will no longer be relevant or controversial.

    3) Top drivers will no longer settle for being “Number two” at any team. Chances are that these drivers will opt to be “Number one” at a lesser team, helping to improve that team.

    4) “Number two” spots on the better teams may be available to talented new drivers that would excel in such an environment.

    If the teams employed drivers based on “Number one” and “Number two” status, the problem of team orders would essentially fix itself. The number two driver would rarely be skilled enough to present a direct contest with their team-mate. If they did, the declaration of such status would dictate their behaviour.

  9. Alianora, maybe that has something to do with the fact that 2003 comes before 2007, and Alonso wasn’t driving for Ferrari yet. To me, it’s clear that, after his year in Macca, a big part of the british media is biassed against him; just as a big part of the spanish media is against Hamilton.

    But it’s just my point of view. Thanks also for the nuances of the word “honest”, they are a little bit different for me.

    All I’m saying is that we are talking about two cases of the same: team orders. And it seems hypocritical to me that, depending on the circumstances, team orders could mean nothing or a big scandal.

    Räikkonën was champion in 2007 thanks to team orders, in the very last race. Nobody make a big deal about that. And, again, team orders decided, effectively and in the last moment, the champion of that year. In my opinion, much more controversial that this last time.

    About the chances of Massa for the championship, Duncan, I think Ferrari made a decision. They have very little ones to get it, considering that both drivers of Macca and Red Bull are in the fight for it. I think it’s pretty clear that their only bullet for the DWC was Alonso, like it or not; I’m also sure that, had Massa won the last race, both McL and RBR would be much more satisfied with that.

    Regards.

  10. As usual, very thoughtful comments from everybody. A pleasure to read.

    As an Alonso supporter, I have to say that I did not like the way Ferrari made such a decission last Sunday. He did not need that help, and in fact he was not happy at all when the race finished as everyboy could see. This is not mean that he could have beat Massa easily; probably not if Massa defended the same way he did before receiving team orders. And this is the main point here: it is the same as when Alonso was in McLaren: he did not think wining a particular race, but what really matters then and now is to win the championship, because he does think he is hired for that. Thus, he tries to skip potentially extremely dangerous situations as it would have been trying to pass Massa (having in mind the recent episode at Red Bull). And that was the reason, I believe, for his comment “this is ridiculous, guys”. To avoid these situations is also a primary objective for McLaren, as we can see all the time with their famous messages “Button/Hamilton save fuel, will you do that for us please?”

    All this is obvioulsy not fair for Massa, and it is pretty understable he was upset. Suddenly he realized what Ferrari was expecting: Alonso is the candidate. He has been faster in a regular basis, and is the more logical option. I think the only way to avoid this would be having a single driver for each team (besides what has been stated before or real number 1 and 2 drivers).

    After going through big pains “thanks to” the high politics of these two big teams, I am sure Alonso misses his former years at Renault, as many of his supporters as a matter of fact!