Motorsport: German GP Controversy

iPlayer Alonso passes Massa for the lead

There has been a huge wave of anger directed at Ferrari because they ‘appeared’ to issue an instruction to Felipe Massa to allow Fernando Alonso overtake him for the lead of the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim (Watch the overtake here on the BBC iPlayer). This is  completely against the rules of the sport, and as such Ferrari have been fined $ 100,000 and referred to the World Motor Sport Council for bringing the sport into disrepute. That is not enough for a lot of fans, but against the general public consensus, I personally do not believe the crime was all that severe. Here’s why……

Now before you brand me an idiot, the following is only my opinion, but I think it is a lot more reasoned than that of the masses who are going totally overboard on this issue.

To be clear, Ferrari DID break the ban on Team Orders. It was pretty obvious to everyone watching/listening to the German GP at the Hockenheimring that Ferrari ‘told’ Felipe Massa to let Alonso past! With that said, it would be mad of me to argue that they should face no punishment. The stewards really had no choice but to look at the incident, and although Massa was not directly and clearly instructed to move over, Rob Smedley delivered the ‘instruction’ with such a reluctant tone, and Massa slowed so abruptly, that Ferrari would have had no evidence to prove that team orders were not being carried out. To be honest, finding Ferrari guilty of issuing ‘Team Orders’ showed rare common sense from the Race Stewards. Many experts in the paddock argued that because Ferrari did not actually say “move over Felipe” or “let Fernando past,” nothing could be proven. In times gone by Ferrari could well have got away penalty free. They did not; they were found guilty of breaching the sporting code, which states that “any fraudulent conduct or any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition or to the interests of motorsport generally” can be punished. They’ve been issued with the maximum $ 100,000 fine (approx. £ 64,500) available to the Stewards, but crucially the issue has also been referred to the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) who can essentially punish Ferrari however they like! The chances are they will not go crazy, but instead just deduct Constructors Points. For me, going any further than this would be totally wrong.

This penalty is not enough for the raging masses airing their dissatisfaction all over the web. Social media sites such as Twitter have made the general opinion more visible than ever before; after the race, the hashtag #FerrariInternationalAssistance was the number one trending topic in the UK. Many also suggest that Ferrari should not only be disqualified from the race, but also from the Championship….. It really is a massive overreaction!

As I have said, I do not doubt Ferrari broke the rules, so had to be punished, but that in itself is not a big problem for me! I think the rules themselves are the problem. A ban on ‘Team Orders’ in a team sport is utter madness. Team orders are not cheating, as many ‘fans’ claim. I think part of the problem is many of the British ‘fans’ complaining are those who barely follow the sport in any great depth, and only started watching with the arrival of Lewis Hamilton (and so hate Alonso because of his time at McLaren)…. They simply do not understand that instructions issued to drivers that benefit the team are, and always have been, part of the sport. I would have thought that EVERY team on the grid, were they in Ferrari’s position, would have manufactured a change of position. In fact almost every expert interviewed in the BBC post-race coverage in Germany, including David Coulthard, Mike Gascoyne, Martin Brundle, Michael Schumacher, etc, said explicitly that team order are widely adopted in F1 today. They are not use in as obvious a way as what Ferrari did, but they are there, and nobody complains about them. At the end of the day, Scuderia Ferrari exists to win the Formula1 World Championship. Before the German GP, Fernando Alonso had 98 championship points. Felipe Massa had just 67 points. The championship leader, Lewis Hamilton had 145 points.  Quite clearly, if Ferrari wants to do their job and win the championship, Alonso, 31 points ahead of his team mate, is by far their best chance to do it. Christian Horner, a man who normally speaks so much sense, is the only F1 team boss to come out and say what Ferrari did was unacceptable. He proudly claims his drivers are free to race… “Just look at what happened to them in Turkey!” Errrr…. What! Webber’s car was in fuel saving mode and Vettel’s behind him was not. This was why Vettel was able to catch Webber and crash into him! That is just a clever way of trying to favour one driver over the other. That is manipulating the race unfairly isn’t it…. It equates to the same thing as what Ferrari tried to do! It may not be against the rules in the same way, but it’s the same thing. Other teams are known to tell their drivers, pre-race, how to handle the race start if they are alongside their team mate, or to maintain position with their team mate after the final round of pit stops…. This all is manipulation of the race in a way. So it is too when one driver is put on a preferential pit strategy in order to jump their teammate, or one driver is given a slow pitstop so the other will benefit. Many teams will also have systems in place to orchestrate a driver swap on track, but not clumsily a la Ferrari… they use code words. These things are in fact far more devious than what Ferrari did, and in fact trick the fans even more. I could go on and on, but the point is that team orders are a part of F1, even if barely noticed by the casual observer. It is totally wrong to try and blame Ferrari for the sport’s downfalls, and it is totally wrong for a ban on Team Orders to exist in Formula 1. It just can’t be consistently policed. Even Eddie Jordan, who on the BBC Fans Forum post German GP, was the only BBC pundit to criticise team orders, today says he wants team orders made legal again! It just makes sense. It won’t regularly rob fans of racing, because the issue only crops up in a big way like this on very rare occasions.

Ferrari’s biggest ‘crime’ is the handling of their team order, and not merely the existence of it. They did a piss poor job of it, and they got caught! Quite what Rob Smedley was thinking in issuing the ‘order’ to Massa in such an obvious way and then apologising for it, God only knows? He was making a statement that he didn’t want to do it, and so was Felipe when he let Alonso past him so clearly. If they were doing the job properly, Smedley would have said “Felipe, Alonso is faster than you.” He needed to say no more. Massa could then have let Alonso get close enough to slip stream him down the straight and the overtake would have looked genuine enough. If they valued their jobs, Smedley and Massa were always going to have to tow the team line in post-race interviews…. “What team orders?” Another spectator grievance; Ferrari lying about it post-race… The team too could hardly come out and say “Yeah… we cheated. Those were team orders. We broke the rules and we don’t care. F**K you all!” They kind of had to act as though they had done nothing wrong.

Hopefully this issue will prompt a rethink of the Team Orders rules in Formula 1…..let them get on with winning championships, however they can.

– Heres a great article on the subject written by Tony Dodgins on Autosport.com

– And another piece supporting my point of view by Martin Brundle on the BBC F1 Website

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