Thursday, April 21, 2011

F1 in a twist over team orders

In Hungary

Formula 1 is in a fix. Over team orders. To keep the ban as it is or bin it - that's the question.

Or is there a middle way that would see the sport's law-makers provide a clarification that would specify precisely the circumstances when a team would be allowed to apply team orders and when they wouldn't?

Over the last two days here at the Hungaroring, I've canvassed opinion among leading members of teams in the pit-lane - team principals, team managers, technical directors and managing directors - who, it has to be said, all have their own agendas and specific team interests.

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The first finding to report is that nobody has a ready-made solution!

Significantly, the issue wasn't even on the agenda at Wednesday's meeting of the Formula 1 Teams' Association's Sporting Regulations Working Group. It was suggested, in the wake of the furore at last weekend's German Grand Prix that it should be discussed, but it wasn't added.

An overwhelming majority of the figures I consulted believed that Ferrari deserved further punishment.

And the majority view was that most suitable penalty, in addition to their $100,000 fine, was the loss of Ferrari's 43 points in the constructors' championship at Hockenheim.
The drivers, however, would retain theirs.

"How can you impose a really strict penalty for an offence that we all know the teams commit?" said one team executive.

Some thought a suspended race ban should also apply but, perhaps surprisingly, there was no call for another much heavier fine in line with the punishment handed out in 2002 after Ferrari's conduct at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Then, there was no rule outlawing team orders but the FIA imposed the $1m sanction because they ruled that the podium incident involving Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello had brought the sport into disrepute.

The only unanimous view I came across in all discussions is that rule needed to be clarified because team orders have always been, and will always be part of the fabric of F1.

So, if that's the case, surely it would make most sense for the sport to erase article 39.1 and allow team orders.

That would mean fans, the media and the authorities would know what to expect and there wouldn't be the outrage that surrounded last weekend's result.

"No", said one team principal. "There needs to be a deterrent. Otherwise you'll have another Austria 2002 when there was no ban on team orders yet Ferrari made the sport look stupid."

Support for that opinion came from one of the pit-lane's most experienced technical directors, who cited three examples of team orders which reflected what's acceptable and what is not.

"When (Felipe) Massa helped (Kimi) Raikkonen to victory in Brazil in 2007, and as a result the title, that was entirely understandable, entirely right," my source said.

"Massa couldn't win the title but his team-mate could. It was the last race of the season. And Ferrari explained it properly.

"Austria 2002 was blatantly wrong. It was only the sixth race of the season and Schumacher was already well ahead in the championship. He had no need for assistance.

"Then you had Hockenheim last weekend, and that's somewhere in the middle of the range. Alonso was clearly quicker and is their best bet for the championship.

"What made it so messy was the way Ferrari handled things after the race. It was a farce. They treated the public so stupidly."

But given the current ban, how else could Ferrari explain the Massa-Alonso switch, without openly admitting they had broken the rules?

As it is, another senior technical director believes the stewards got it wrong in Hockenheim.

He claims a more meaningful, damaging penalty for Ferrari would have been a 10-second time penalty for Alonso, which would have relegated him from first to third, promoting Massa to victory.

None of the people I've spoken to this week thought Ferrari got it right in Germany - and yet privately all will tell you that their biggest offence was not imposing the order on Massa but carrying it out so blatantly.

As one team official put it bluntly: "It comes down to how well we can cheat the fans, because if we do it well, under this current rule, nobody knows."

When I pressed for a form of words or a mechanism that allowed for team orders in certain circumstances, only in the final third of the season as some have suggested, nobody had a recommendation.

The same source indicated that drafting the sporting regulations could become a legal minefield with officials challenging the scope of the rule - "interfering with the race result" - in the same way that engineers challenge the technical regulations.

"Everything we do can interfere with the race result. What about the Red Bull front wing at Silverstone, for example? Only for Vettel, not for Webber."

Prompted by a leading technical director, I checked out the 1998 ruling from the World Motor Sport Council following McLaren switch between David Coulthard and Mika Hakkinen at the Australian Grand Prix that year.

The FIA verdict read as follows: "It is perfectly legitimate for a team to decide that one of its drivers is the championship contender and the other will support him.

"What is not acceptable in the world council's view is any arrangement which interferes with the race and cannot be justified by the relevant team's interest in the championship."

This ruling stood until the end of 2002 when the ban was imposed.

As discussed in Andrew Benson's blog after the race on Sunday, there's a contradiction in F1 over team orders.

It's not so much what the teams do, it's how they do it.

In that context, it's hardly surprising that Ferrari president Luca di Montezemolo would criticise the sport's "hypocrisy".

While the teams continue to believe in their unwritten rule which flies in the face of the official ruling, this latest controversy surely will not be the last.

And if the World Council isn't going to meet until 10 September - the Friday of the Italian Grand Prix, of all days - it guarantees that we'll all be watching the action even more closely.


Jack Brabham† Bill Brack Ernesto Brambilla

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