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Team orders let out of hiding

2010-12-11 09:55

It seems only fitting that Jean Todt should preside over the legalising of Formula 1's controversial “team orders”, having triggered the ban in the first place.

The Frenchman, now head of the governing International Automobile Federation, was the Ferrari team boss when it drew worldwide condemnation and outrage for manipulating the 2002 Austrian GP in favour of Michael Schumacher.

Team orders were outlawed but they never really went away. The 2010 German GP furore that focused on Ferrari and its favouring of double World champion Fernando Alonso over team mate Felipe Massa emphasised that.

The rule change agreed by the FIA on Friday recognised that team orders were a part of the sport while also conceding that the paying public had a right not to be insulted.

"The article forbidding team orders (39.1) is deleted," the FIA said. "Teams will be reminded that any actions liable to bring the sport into disrepute are dealt with under Article 151c of the International Sporting Code and any other relevant provisions."

HEAVY SANCTIONS

What that means is that timing is everything. Teams still risk heavy penalties for blatant manipulation early in the season, as occurred at Austria in 2002 and Hockenheim in 2009. Ferrari was fined $100 000 in 2010 for effectively telling Massa to move aside and let Alonso win.

Both drivers were still in contention but what upset TV viewers far more was the fact that Massa was denied an emotional victory on the first anniversary of an accident in Hungary that almost killed him.

In 2002, when Brazilian Rubens Barrichello dominated all weekend but had to let Schumacher by at the last corner, there was nothing the FIA could do about what happened on the track as nothing illegal had happened. Instead, Ferrari was hammered for a breach of podium protocol and fined $1-million, half that amount suspended for a year against future infringements.

The outrage festered, mainly because Barrichello had played loyal No.2 on so many occasions and Schumacher had won four of the five previous races. The German ended that season with 67 points more than anybody else.

Team orders were banned after Austria by then FIA president Max Mosley but everybody in F1 knows there are plenty of ways to get around that. Drivers know well enough what the team expects of them without obvious instructions. Should there be any difficulties, a team can easily reduce the revs on a car or fluff a pit stop or switch strategies.

One only has to think back to 2008 when Brazilian Nelson Piquet crashed on orders at the Singapore GP to bring out the safety car and allow Alonso to win for a particularly extreme example. That incident only came to light a year later when Piquet, by then dropped by Renault, turned whistle-blower.

PULLING RANK

Some purists will argue that deleting the team orders ban realigns the 60-year-old championship with its glorious past and the days when the likes of the late great Juan Manuel Fangio pulled rank on team mates.

Others will argue that the teams pay the bills and the drivers' wages and how they run their operation is their own business. Still others will be equally adamant that the sport is called motor racing for a reason and the modern spectator wants to see free and fair competition rather than the driver with the better contract being handed victory on a plate.

They could also argue that, had Red Bull ordered Sebastian Vettel to let Mark Webber win in Brazil and Japan this year when the German led the Australian in a 1-2 finish, F1 would not be celebrating its youngest champion.

There is, however, nothing in the rules that says teams have to embrace team orders; the Red Bull team has made clear that it is not its nature to do so.

What Friday's change does do is rid the sport of the charade of teams pretending there are no orders at a point in the season when logic dictates there must be - when one of their drivers is chasing the title and the other out of contention.

Reuters