In the German Grand Prix this weekend the age old subject of team orders raised its ugly head once again as Ferrari – a well-known perpetrator of acts of favouritism towards its so-called leading driver – ordered Felipe Massa to surrender the lead of the race to his teammate, Fernando Alonso.
In a very poorly coded message, Felipe Massa was told by his race engineer Rob Smedley, in slow, measured terms: “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understand that message.” On the next lap, Massa deliberately lifted off the throttle coming out of the Turn 6 hairpin at Hockenheim, and the deed was done – Alonso was free to take the victory.
“Ok mate, good lad. Just stick with it now,” was Smedley's next communication to his driver. “Sorry” was added afterwards by way of an apology.
Uproar ensued. Ferrari was caught in a media storm straight after the race, fans were accusing the team of foul play, personnel from other teams were looking on in amusement, adding their own remarks about the Scuderia's tactics. There was sympathy for Felipe Massa: exactly a year to the day after his horrific accident in Hungary, what better reward could he have received than a race victory – his first since Brazil 2008.
So what possessed Ferrari to act in this way?
Going into this race Alonso was 47 points behind Lewis Hamilton, who was, and still is, leader of the driver's standings. That is almost the equivalent of two race wins. Massa was over 38 further behind Alonso, and all but out of the championship running. Ferrari hadn't won a race since the opening weekend of the season, and the Italian press and the Tifosi were getting impatient.
Ferrari had a good qualifying, with Alonso narrowly missing out on pole position on Saturday. Massa qualified third, just behind his teammate. Unfortunately, at the start of the race, Massa got past both pole-sitter Sebastian Vettel, and his teammate. Ferrari now had a problem: they were on course for a 1-2 finish, but if they wanted any chance of a title this season, they needed Alonso in front of the Brazilian.
Alonso could not pass Massa in the pitstops, and despite his teammate struggling on his softer tyres, the Spaniard could not get past the race leader, despite a couple of good attempts. He was getting frustrated. “This is ridiculous,” Alonso told his team on Lap 21.
Now Alonso is a double world champion and – in the opinion of many people who are well-qualified to comment – one of the best all-round drivers in the Formula 1 field, along with possibly Lewis Hamilton and, if you consider what he did in his previous career, Michael Schumacher. Unfortunately there is a side to Alonso that is not as endearing to the Formula 1 public. That is, if he doesn't get things his own way he sulks, or throws his toys out of the pram.
The best example of his petulance was seen during his time at McLaren, when he realised that Lewis Hamilton was not the kind of rookie teammate that he had been hoping for. He has also been getting frustrated in recent races when decisions involving the safety car haven't gone his way, and the complaints this weekend were just another example of this darker side to the Spaniard.
Whether it was Alonso's pestering, a clause in his contract which demands number one status, or just a willingness to do anything to win amongst the decision makers at Ferrari that led to these orders being given, we will probably never know. The unfortunate thing is that there were given, and transpired was the most deliberate and blatant case of a team switching around their two drivers since Austria 2002.
As soon as the two Ferraris changed places at Hockenheim, commentators were harking back to that incident. Rubens Barrichello, then at Ferrari, had been dominant all weekend at the A1-ring, easily beating Schumacher. The German should have been untroubled though. This was before the halfway point of the season but he had a clear lead in the championship having won four of the first five races of the season.
However, Ferrari ordered Barrichello to let Schumacher past him as the two approached the finish line. He obliged, and Schumacher took the checkered flag first. The German was roundly booed by the crowd as he got out of the car and went up on the podium. He pushed Barrichello onto the top step as the trophies were handed out, but the watching public were disgusted.
Schumacher went on to win the championship by 67 points, from Barrichello, and was 94 points ahead of third-place man Juan Pablo Montoya. He gained an extra four points from Ferrari's switch in Austria.
Ferrari was fined $500,000 after that race. Not for giving the order to Barrichello to concede the lead, but for disrupting the podium procedure. It was after that incident that forced the FIA to bring in the rule about team orders. Article 39.1 now states that “team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”.
After this weekend’s race, Ferrari was fined $100,000 by the stewards – the maximum punishment they can impose – and referred to the world motorsport council (WMSC). The fine is a clear indication of that Ferrari did break the rules, at least in the opinion of the stewards, and they may face further punishment at a later date.
It is hard to see what the WMSC will do though. I suspect the most severe punishments such as expulsion from the championship or suspension from future races will not be used, and the FIA do not like changing the results of races, especially if a long time has passed since the incident in question.
If the FIA want to make an example of the team, they may dock points. Any further financial penalty, unless it is on the scale of the one handed out to McLaren in the wake of the 'spygate' scandal, will make little impact on the Ferrari finances and will probably go unnoticed.
All of this has prompted a lot of discussion about the team order rules. Both Martin Brundle and Eddie Jordan have said on the BBC website today that they should be scrapped, arguing that team orders happen anyway, and that they are impossible to police.
Is this really the solution though? There have been incidents of team orders since 2002, mainly when one driver in a team has a clear opportunity to win the championship and the other does not. There has been nothing as blatant or controversial as this however.
If team orders were made completely legal, the teams would have free reign to do what they wanted. The fans would be deprived of potential overtaking manoeuvres and worthy race winners would lose out on precious victories. For example, in Turkey, Red Bull could have just ordered Mark Webber out of the way, saved their two drivers from crashing into each other, and the German would now have an extra 25 points and be leading the championship quite comfortably.
Perhaps the existing rules could be changed to allow teams to manipulate the order of their two cars if one driver had no mathematical chance of winning the championship, or if he required 90% of the available points, or some other threshold. However, this would just make things more complicated when, really common sense must just prevail.
There was widespread agreement that Ferrari breached article 39.1. There have been punished, and could receive further penalties. Massa should have been perfectly entitled to defend the lead from Alonso. Instead, Massa has been deprived a career victory which would have been well deserved after a good race drive and the fans were deprived of a potential overtaking attempt from Alonso.
Alonso did not deserve that victory if he was unable to pass his teammate. Fans know that this is the wrong result, and many could just choose not to watch future races if they think it is being decided by the teams on the pit wall rather than the drivers out on the race track.
If this took place in Abu Dhabi, the final race of the season, and Massa had no chance of winning the title but Alonso did, then I think that fans would understand if Massa relinquished the lead (although you'd hope that Ferrari would do it in a less clumsy fashion).
Another question that arose was whether or not anyone would be making a fuss if exactly the same thing happened lower down the order. What if Massa and Alonso were running fourth and fifth when the order came? It probably wouldn't have got the same amount of headlines, as a win is something pretty prestigious whereas fourth place is the third best losers spot. However, I suspect questions would have been asked by the FIA about the team order situation, especially this early on in the season.
One final point – I can see the case for teams ordering their drivers not to challenge each other for position, especially if they are on for a potential 1-2 finish. In their dominant era, Ferrari would often say that they allowed their drivers to race up until the last round of pit stops but they then had to hold position.
These orders, although they could deprive fans of potential overtaking attempts, are more understandable and palatable than demanding that a driver surrender a race lead to their teammate. Orders to hold position are also unlikely to be given, or at least adhered to, if both drivers from the same team are fighting for a championship, and the extra points for the race win would be very valuable to them.
Back to the German Grand Prix: if Alonso wins the 2010 drivers championship by 7 points or less, then the decision to switch drivers will seem like a stroke of genius, and $100,000 will seem a small price for Ferrari to pay. This situation could well rumble on right up until the WMSC meeting, which could be as late as September. Whatever happens between now and then, I don't think we will be hearing Rob Smedley calling Felipe Massa 'magnanimous' again for some time.