Opinion: Ferrari Team Orders – Why It Was Wrong

If you cut through the bluster and navigate your way around the blasé attitudes of the battle hardened members of Formula One's travelling circus, the underlying feeling among the stakeholders of the sport must be, or most certainly should be, that events at Hockenheim on Sunday marked a dark day for its integrity.

Let's disregard the fact that I have a vested interest owing to the fact that I attempt to make a living from writing about it; first and foremost, I am one of the millions of people around the world who share a passion for Formula One. The question I have found myself agonising over in the wake of Ferrari's antics is this: Does this passion outweigh all feelings of what is right and wrong? Does it blinker me in such a way that I shrug my shoulders, seemingly in unison with many paddock insiders, and accept that this is how it goes? The short answer is that no, it doesn't.

I was annoyed when I realised that Ferrari were engineering a situation that would lead to a manufactured change of leader, and I cringed while Fernando Alonso, Stefano Domenicali and the team's press office treated the entire F1 world like fools by trying to wriggle their way out of it with lie after pathetic lie as they squirmed in front of the media. These feelings were to be expected after what had happened, what I didn't expect, however, was having to watch respected experts from the paddock, notable members of the racing fraternity, attempt to tell us that yes, the team had contravened article 39.1 of the sporting regulations by instigating team orders that interfered with the result, but that it didn't really matter, because this is just the way it goes in the “business” that is modern Formula One. This ridiculous attempt to justify what in any other sport in the world would be called match fixing, was the aspect that disturbed me the most.

Upon receiving scathing emails from various members of the public on the BBC's F1 forum, David Coulthard, a man who I hold in the highest regard for his usual no nonsense attitude in the face of his excitable colleagues, brushed off the concerns of the correspondents by advising us not to get “all tabloid” about a situation that “has gone on for years”. Was he being serious? The overwhelming majority of fans of the sport felt that they had been cheated, the fans who not only pay the wages of the pundits, but also of every other person involved at any level of the sport. These people, if they felt anything like I did, felt as though Ferrari had violated their rights as fans to watch a fair battle between two evenly matched drivers, and they wanted the people who are paid to enhance their viewing experience to listen to these concerns and take note. What they got instead was a verbal pat on the head from a bunch of analysts acting as if they were telling their younger siblings that Father Christmas doesn't exist. As for the ridiculous assertion that it is ok because it has been going on for years, so have assault and fraud, and yet I don't ever recall 'it's been going on for years' being used as a successful defence for either.

Somewhere else on Sunday, I was listening to another expert explaining the pressure that was placed on a modern day Grand Prix team to attract the level of sponsorship required to foot the huge cost of running an operation on this scale, a statement which was both factually correct and ridiculous in equal measure. Of course, teams need to raise huge sums from sponsors to keep themselves afloat, but a “modern” company places huge emphasis on corporate responsibility, and aligning any brand with a team that have been labelled cheats, whether rightly or wrongly, has become a huge turn off for marketing departments around the world, just ask ING.

In terms of Ferrari, it is evident from the blank spaces on the car, that they are not an organisation which faces the sort of budget constraints which mean that they need to convey a squeaky clean image, but surely they cannot afford to alienate the whole of the watching public who reside anywhere but Italy and Spain. It seems that they have learnt nothing from the battering that their reputation took in the fallout from the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, a race which saw Rubens Barrichello forced to move aside for the Schumacher express to take a similar hollow victory. Michael himself was on hand yesterday to offer his support to his beleaguered former employers, insisting that he would have done the same, as it's all about winning the World Championship. Erm, yes, we know you would Michael, you already have.

The real irony of the day of course is that while one half of the team made itself look pretty pathetic, the other side, particularly Felipe Massa, covered himself in glory with the way that he handled himself in the face of an impossible situation. It would have been career suicide for the likeable Brazilian to have disobeyed the order to let Alonso by, but the class he showed afterwards only strengthened the betrayal felt by the neutral observer, especially on a day which marked the anniversary of his horrific accident at Budapest.
I have always found Domenicali to be one of the more likeable characters in the sport, and whilst I'd like to think that Alonso's incessant whinging had led to yesterday's call, there is obviously a greater degree of structure around the arrival at such decisions at an organisation the size of Ferrari, but who actually made the call is pretty immaterial, the whole team lost a lot of respect this weekend, firstly with the decision to make their drivers switch places, and most importantly by thinking that the viewing public were stupid enough to believe that they had not just witnessed them doing it.

My seven year old son watched the race, he is mad about F1, and even if he doesn't realise his dream of competing in it when he is older, he is at the very least one of the fans who will be propping up the next generation of superstars with his hard earned. He asked me after the race why I was cross about Alonso winning, and he genuinely didn't understand what all the fuss was about, I thought hard about the best way of explaining the events without dampening his enthusiasm, and I couldn't think of any way to dress it up. “Because they cheated, son” I replied reluctantly, and from the look in his eye at that moment, it was as if I had told him that Father Christmas doesn't exist. That is why I will struggle to forgive Ferrari for this sorry episode, and also why I think that the members of the F1 paddock who shrugged their shoulders and brushed it off should be ashamed of themselves.

Formula One is not a business, it's a sport, and while it is of course undeniable that teams must generate the revenue with which to operate, this should never come at the expense of the enjoyment of the fans, there would be no Formula One without them and make no mistake, the fans are angry about this, mostly because of the human element surrounding Massa. Not only were we deprived of a fair result at Hockenheim, we had one of the greatest feel good moments in the modern era of the sport snatched from under our noses and replaced with a stench of rotten stallion.

  • Mat

    There is a fans agenda to this article. Yes, Ferrari handled the situation abysmally. But, if you look wider and more closely at the sport you will find thousands of examples across every team of team orders. For example, 2008 McLaren did exactly the same thing telling Heikki to move out of the way of Lewis. Brazil the same year when Felipe moved out of the way for Kimi in Brazil. Is Turkey this year not team orders by Red Bull telling Webber to conserve fuel when he didn’t need too which then led to the infamous crash. Team orders is also the same motive to the front wing issue with Red Bull in Silverstone, it’s just not so obvious. The same thing happens all the time to cars not leading the race, but in 12th and 13th place it is just not picked up. You’re article only focuses on Ferrari when this is a sporting problem not an exclusive on. Perhaps the issue is really that the rule, like we have seen so many time this year, is fundamentally wrong, needs adapting and then updating. Coulthard has a point. Particularly the British press when it relates to Alonso become hysterical. Ferrari handled the situation arrogantly and are rightly punished, but perspective is needed.

  • Dai McCann

    Thanks for your comments Mat, to address the first point, there is certainly no fans agenda. Firstly, I find the practice of supporting a team/driver to the detriment of all others pretty childish and distateful, and secondly, I met Alonso at Silverstone and whilst full of preconceptions, found him to be a very likeable young man.
    As far as your other points, I couldn’t agree more* and was critical of each instance at the time; please don’t imagine that I would miss the more covert instances, the point remains, however, that as long as the rule stands (wrongly in my opinion), then it is cheating, by definition.
    The piece was witten to provoke a response, and I appreciate you feeling passionate enough about it to respond.

    *The only one which I don’t agree with you on is the Red Bull front wing, whose effect on performance was marginal and the decision to swap it certainly didn’t manipulate the result at Silverstone, yes it was a management call to swap it, but if you bundled all operational decisions as ‘team orders’, the WMSC would be constantly in session.

  • I don’t think people are looking at this whole incident from a wide enough perspective.

    Yes, team orders are wrong in the sense there’s a (rather poorly worded) rule against it, but in the end Formula One has evolved from a sport into a business.

    The only way the fans will ever get a say in Formula One again is if every single person that watches it boycotts the sport completely. Until that day comes, the teams will get their way.

    Single car teams would solve this problem, but cause others.

    You can come up with as many solutions as you like, but none will stop this from happening. If you want a series with cutting edge technology, complete driver parity, fan interaction and equal cars – find an alien race, cause you sure as hell won’t find such a thing here.

    Bleak but true.

  • Dai McCann

    I’ll stick to my narrow perspective, I’m not interested in some idealogically perfect series, neither do I want a say in the running of Formula One, I just want either clarification of, or more preferably, the banning of, article 39.1 of the FIA sporting regulations, and until that stage for people to adhere to it as it stands.

    I’m not saying Ferrari are the only team that have ever done it, that McLaren or Red Bull have never done it – I’m just saying that these are the rules that the teams agreed to because of what happened in Austria 2002, and that they should abide by them, until such a time when they are changed, it’s not rocket science.

    I agree about F1 turning into a business, but even in business, rules must be obeyed.

  • Tell that to a group of CEOs and they’ll just point and laugh at you. Unfortunately.

    Article 39.1 is just impossible to enfore correctly every time because of they way it’s worded. The FIA need to hire some sort of Oxford Literacy Professor to proof-read the rules to make sure they’re iron-clad apparently!

  • “Tell that to a group of CEOs and they’ll just point and laugh at you. Unfortunately.”

    I think you would be hard pushed to find anyone with the wherewithal to reach the upper echelons of business who would knowingly breach the laws which govern his industry.
    Even if you did, the law surrounding corporate governance would see to it that he wasn’t a CEO for very long.

  • Maybe I’m just sceptical, but businesses take shortcuts everywhere. Or at least, push the rules to the absolute limit, just as every team on the grid does.

    In reality team orders have been around since the dawn of Formula One – especially in the 50s when for example Peter Collins gave up the championship to Ferrari team leader Juan Manuel Fangio when the latter’s car broke down at the 1956 Italian GP.

    The way I see it, team orders in one form or another are impossible to ban completely, so just ditch Article 39.1. Teams will not let their drivers race against each other under any circumstances so it’s not like it changes anything.

  • I think we’re in agreement, let’s get rid of the farcical rule and be done with it.

    Ferrari have always led the way in issues of team orders, Collins is one of the prime examples as you rightly say. In an ironic twist though, the ‘old man’ always used to make sure that all of his drivers knew that if one of them had the lead, then the others could not attack him – I bet Felipe wishes Enzo had still been around on Sunday.

    In other news, my first opinion piece looks like it has succeeded in provoking opinion – must be one of the most commented on on the site.