“Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”, says article 39.1 of the Sporting Regulations.
It’s had little use since it was introduced eight years ago, but on Sunday Ferrari were found to have broken it, given a $100,000 fine and ordered to appear before the World Motor Sports Council.
This has led to criticism of the rule but those who call for it to be scrapped have failed to understand why Sunday’s events were controversial and why a repeat must be prevented.
Massa’s position in the championship
Ferrari justified their decision to let Fernando Alonso past Felipe Massa in terms of what was going on the race – claiming the drivers were under pressure from Sebastian Vettel. But it’s inconceivable the decision would have been taken had the championship situation been reversed.
Here’s how the top half of the drivers’ standings looked before the race:
With a total of 225 points to be won Massa was still in contention for the championship.
The new championship points system makes it harder to compare this situation with what’s happened in years’ past. Because the points on offer has increased it makes Massa’s position appear worse than it is.
The current championship system is very much like last years, but with the points on offer for each position multiplied by 2.5. With that in mind, here’s how the situation would have looked under the 2009 points scheme:
That makes it a little easier to understand that Massa was actually not that far behind his team mate at all. Had Ferrari not taken his win off him, the pair would now be fifth and sixth in the drivers’ championship with a win apiece.
We could argue what point a driver is not “realistically” likely to win a championship until the cows come home. The fact of the matter is, no-one can ever say for sure until the championship is over.
Yes, Massa has been largely behind his team mate so far this year. But sometimes the balance of power shifts within a team – like it did at Brawn last year.
Just three years ago, Kimi Räikkönen overcame a deficit equal to 1.7 wins in two races to win the championship. In 1976, James Hunt clawed back a deficit of 3.88 wins over seven races to become champion (helped by rival Niki Lauda missing three races due to injury).
Massa was 3.1 wins behind with nine races left on Saturday evening. A long way behind, yes, but other drivers came from further behind to win the championship.
Why the championship situation matters
Ferrari also used team orders in two of the last three seasons – putting Räikkönen ahead of Massa in the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix, and vice-versa at the 2008 Chinese Grand Prix.
On neither occasion did they attract anything like the kind of criticism they received last weekend.
Why? Because in both cases the driver who was giving up the place was no longer in a position to be able to win the world championship.
This is a crucial distinction. Part of the reason so many criticised Ferrari (77% in a poll of over 2,500 on this site) is because they expect drivers to be allowed to challenge for the championship as long as they are mathematically in the running.
That is an entirely reasonable expectation – people want the driver who wins the championship to have deserved it, and not just because his team mate was sacrificed.
F1 must understand this if it is to prevent repeats of the kind of criticism it attracted on Sunday.
How team radio played a role
Since article 39.1 was introduced in 2008 there have been other occasions where it seems very likely that team orders were used on drivers when both were in contention for the championship.
Lewis Hamilton charged past Heikki Kovalainen with little difficulty at the same circuit in 2008. Also that year Nick Heidfeld put up little resistance to Robert Kubica’s pass – which effectively put him in the lead of the race – in Canada.
It’s worth remembering that on both occasions the two pairs of drivers were on different strategies. Nor had the lead driver spent the entire race in front of the driver behind him.
But the most significant reason why these examples failed to attract criticism the same way Ferrari’s did was that on Sunday we were able to hear Ferrari’s thinly-veiled instructions to Massa as they were issued. This was not the case in 2008.
Now fans are able to hear the radio of all the teams future team orders will attract the same kind of criticism – if the FIA does not step in to prevent it.
A clear team order
When it came, Ferrari’s coded message to Massa was unmistakeably a team order.
To begin with, it was a dead giveaway that the team felt the need to tell Massa “Alonso is faster than you”. It clearly was not an attempt to help Massa go faster, the only possible positive interpretation of that comment, because it offered no indication of how he might find the lost time to Alonso.
Here’s an example of what a genuine message explaining the pace of other drivers looks like. During the same race Hamilton asked his team what the cars behind him (the first of which was his team mate) were doing. The reply came back:
Cars behind are matching our pace. Jenson slightly quicker in first sector, we’re slightly quicker in last sector.
Massa’s unhelpful instruction came with the pointed question “do you understand” added on the end, making it clear there was a subtext to the message.
Then, to cap it all, Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley apologised to him. Some claimed this act gave the game away. But it had become obvious long before then what was really going on.
Why the team orders rules must stay
In reaction to the controversy some prominent figures including Bernie Ecclestone and Martin Brundle have called for the team orders ban to be scrapped.
This would be a grave mistake which would lead to worse controversies that would further damage the image of Formula One.
It would open the way for even more contentious acts of race-fixing, similar to those we saw at Suzuka and Jerez in 1997. Surely we don’t want a Formula One where half the drivers on the track are only there to hold up the other drivers for the benefit of their team mate?
Yes, team orders have always been a part of F1. And no, I don’t believe they can or should be eradicated completely.
But as increasing transparency in F1 put the teams’ every move under scrutiny those that try to manipulate the championship will only bring Formula One into disrepute.
It’s clear from the vehement reaction to Austria 2002 and Germany 2010, and the muted response to Brazil 2007 and China 2008, that fans have far less objection to team orders being used when one driver is out of the running for the championship.
But they expect teams to allow their drivers to compete for the championship as long as both are in contention. It’s clear F1 needs a rule to enforce that and I see no reason why the existing article 39.1 can’t be updated to do so.
That is the best way to prevent future rows over team orders and safeguard the integrity of the world championship.
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