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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

My take on team orders

From the moment Felipe Massa rocketed off the line and into first place last Sunday at Hockenheim, you knew the Brazilian was going to have to turn in a masterful drive. Not only did he need to keep Sebastian Vettel behind him, he needed to keep Ferrari behind him.

As Fernando Alonso pressured, even complaining (whining?) over the radio on the ridiculousness of it all, it was quickly becoming clear that the Ferrari mentality, ever present if not as visible as Austria 2002, was going to come into play. It was only a matter of how it would go down.

In the old days (last year), you could simply botch a pit stop. But without refueling, any switch would have to happen on the track.

In fairness, the Scuderia did give Massa the chance to put it out of reach. Before the fateful call, Rob Smedley was pressuring Massa to extend the lead, something he could not consistently do. It is important to note that Alonso did not seem THAT much faster. Of course, I do not have access to the telemetry.

When Smedley's voice came over the radio, “OK, so, Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” there was no mistaking what "that message" was. Time's up. There was no doubt Smedley did not like giving that message to his charge, you could tell by the tone of his voice. It was that emotion that likely triggered the obvious tip off to the few who did not understand that message, “Good lad. Just stick with it now. Sorry.”

To me, there was never any doubt that decision would be made. Alonso is in a better position in the championship, and it made sense from the team's point of view and its history. Was Vettel going to catch Ferrari? No. In fact, it was pretty evident Red Bull had decided third was the best it was going to do and had dialed back to play it safe. This was simply about maximizing the points for the driver in the better position in the championship.

So what of Article 39.1 of the FIA’s Sporting Regulations? “Team orders which interfere with the race result will be prohibited.” Seems an obvious infraction, doesn't it?

My guess is Ferrari will argue there were no team orders favoring one driver or another prior to the race, that it was an off-the-cuff decision, and thus, not "team orders." Legal baloney, you may say, but if any team has lawyers who know every loophole in the regulations, it is Ferrari, and the past proves that.

The regulation itself is hooey, anyway. Team orders have always existed, and the sport has always been about team first. Peter Collins gave up his CAR, for Pete's sake, and we regard that as the ultimate gentlemanly sacrifice. Team orders will always exist, and in listening to drivers turned pundits over the last week, exist throughout the field. Ferrari just happened to be under the microscope Sunday because it was in the front of the field. And in a way, team orders are right. Companies spend a lot of money to go racing, and need to maximize profits in the way they see fit.

Team vs. Individual. In any team sport, a manager makes decisions regarding players in an effort to win for the organization. F1, more than most motor sports, emphasizes the team. Who really cares about Andretti Autosport in Indycar or Earnhardt Ganassi Racing in NASCAR? It is more about the driver in those series. But in F1, it is just as much about team as driver. Look in the stands, and you will see just as many flags and the like for Mercedes and Ferrari as you will for Schumacher and Hamilton. Try that in Indycar.

But it certainly doesn't make for good racing. Audiences were thrilled by the race-long battle between Alonso and Massa (one year to the day removed from life threatening injuries), and they felt cheated. And well they should. Fans, for the most part, don't get jazzed about the constructors title, they cheer for individuals.

Fans wanted to see another Turkey, when Vettel and Mark Webber threw away a certain 1-2 going wheel to wheel, and Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton put on a thrilling show. Ferrari, however, point to Red Bull as justification of its decision. And it is right to do so from its point of view. But if that were the only case, why swap the cars at all? It wasn't necessary unless you were favoring Alonso's championship run.

Worse, it's the way that it was done that leaves a bitter taste. It was so blatantly obvious. From Smedley's "sorry" call, however noble the intention, to Massa's anger in post-race interviews, to Alonso's mock innocence to having any knowledge of the situation, to Stefano Domenicali's take on the whole situation. It was amateur.

Alonso, especially, comes off in a bad light. He does not help his case by talking about what a great victory it was (his best since Singapore, according to one journalist). Even Michael in his heyday didn't take pride in that kind of win. He knew it was "necessary," at least in his eyes at the time, and said as much in post race interviews Sunday, but he didn't "rub it in."

In the end, there is one basic question. Does the sport exist for the fan, or the company? The sport would not exist without the fan, but frankly, not enough of the audience is going to go away. Ferrari isn't going to lose that many fans over this decision. And the anti-Ferrari faction is likely to be energized by it.

Team orders exist. Always have, always will. If you chose to follow F1, you best learn to accept it. Don't miss the top stories of the day, subscribe to the SpeedRead Web newspaper now! -- Email SpeedRead -- Learn more about author C.D. Six


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