Getting The Points, But Not The Point

Monday 26th July 2010

The result of the German Grand Prix this weekend was that Fernando Alonso finished 4.2 seconds ahead of his team mate, Felipe Massa, to win the race. However, to the vast majority of F1 fans, Massa was the real victor.

Alonso outqualified Massa on Saturday, but they both started behind the Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel, who qualified on pole position for his home race. At the start the two Ferraris got off the line better than Vettel, who immediately moved to the right-hand side of the track in an attempt to block Alonso. This left Massa to take the lead of the race, and ultimately Alonso got past Vettel to go second. The Ferraris were running 1st and 2nd, a great achievement given that they’ve been off the pace in recent races. It was also good to see Massa leading a race again, a year to the day after his near-fatal accident in qualifying for last year’s Hungarian Grand Prix.

During much of the race, the two Ferraris were not far away from each other, and it was fairly clear that Alonso was the quicker of the pair. Indeed, he made an attempt to overtake relatively early on, but Massa did a really good job of defending his position to keep the lead and then maintain it throughout the pitstop phase.

While he was being held up by his team mate, some of the radio messages that were broadcast sort of hinted towards Alonso’s frustration. He said that it was “ridiculous”. And then, on lap 48, Massa’s race engineer told him over the radio: “Fernando is faster than you“.

If you don’t follow motorsport, the significance of that phrase is probably lost on you. Because it has a very clear, distinct meaning: let him overtake you. Sure thing, a short time later, Massa miraculously slowed down coming out of a hairpin, allowing his team-mate past.

It was a team order. Ferrari wanted Alonso to win the race, so they told Massa to slow down.

The reasoning is clear. Alonso has a real chance of winning the championship this year, and Massa doesn’t. Therefore they want Alonso to score every point that he can, and doing this enables him to score 7 more points than if he had finished 2nd. Those points could be the difference between winning and losing a title. It’s a very good way to run a team if you want to maximise your chances of winning titles.

However, team orders are banned in F1. They have been since 2002, when Ferrari asked Rubens Barrichello to let Michael Schumacher through to win the Austrian Grand Prix. Accordingly, Ferrari have been issued a $100,000 fine after today’s race (which is essentially a non-punishment). But we’ve seen team orders used plenty of times, even after they were supposedly banned.

In some ways, team orders are a part of motorsport. It’s a team game, and the driver’s responsibility is to the team first, themselves second. There have been countless examples of this sort of thing over the years (indeed, in the early years of the sport, second and third drivers were sometimes required to give up their car part way through a race, if their team mate needed it). Almost every team does it, and I’m sure it’ll continue even after today.

I think the difference is timing. Mostly, team orders are used towards the end of the championship, when one driver is way ahead of the other and is in with a chance of winning the title. In that case, although it’s still slightly awkward, I think it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. The difference here though is that we’ve only just passed the halfway point of the season. Massa is way behind Alonso in the championship and so has no realistic chance of winning it, so logically this move makes sense. But even so, at this stage of the season it’s an incredibly bad thing to do.

There are two reasons why I say this. Firstly, it’s ridiculously un-sporting. Obviously the points are important for Alonso, but when we’re at this stage of the season it just feels really unfair to start using team orders. If Alonso was quicker than Massa, he should’ve made the pass on-track, and I was certainly looking forward to seeing that battle. Instead, Ferrari cheated Massa (and Alonso) of the opportunity to win the race (as opposed to having it gifted to them), and we were cheated out of the spectacle of seeing them do that.

Secondly, I think that Ferrari should’ve considered the damage this has done. Yes, 7 points are useful. But are they worth a demotivated Massa? I would say not.

This isn’t the first time that the issue of driver parity has reared it’s ugly head this season, as Red Bull have been accused of favouring Vettel over Webber a couple of times. In this case, it’s been because of things the managment have said, or by putting upgraded parts on Vettel’s car and not on Webber’s. But I reckon most of these are through mismanagement rather than anything more sinister. And anyway, it’s a very different scenario to ordering one of the drivers to let the other win a race.

It’s been a great season so far, and much of that has been down to intra-team battles. The Red Bull battle that I’ve just mentioned is one example, as is the contest between Hamilton and Button (the last 2 World Champions) at McLaren. I’m sure that the second half of the season will be just as enthralling, especially if Ferrari are able to join the title fight.

But whoever wins this year, it needs to be fair. Maybe Ferrari and Alonso simply want to win at all costs, and that’s their prerogative. Indeed, Alonso was happy with his “win” at Hockenheim, just as he still counts his (disgusting) result at Singapore 2008 as a fair win. But great champions do not need to throw their toys out of their carbon-fibre pram in order to get results; instead they just concentrate on winning in the proper manner.

A couple of years ago, Sir Jackie Stewart (World Champion in 1969, 1971 and 1973) released his autobiography. He entitled it “Winning is Not Enough”. It’s a shame if drivers and teams of the calibre of Alonso and Ferrari don’t share that sentiment.

Posted at 2:18 am | Posted In: Motorsport Tagged:



Monday 26th July 2010, 2:38 pm

I usually skip past Big Names and Motorsport Events and I don’t really get the team thang or the rules or such, but I found that part about the team orders quite interesting.


Friday 30th July 2010, 3:09 pm

I found this post very interesting – I don’t know very much about motorsport but I find it interesting that it’s a team sport in which the team have a certain amount of obstacles to effective communication. In football, netball, etc, you can gesture with your hands and your face, you can even call out if needs be, you can deliberately place yoruself in the eyeline of another player in order to get or avoid a pass or whatever. In motorsport obviously you can only communicate via radio to the engineers; you can’t, seemingly, talk to other drivers on your team; obviously, being in a car, you can’t gesture either. So as team sports go it’s fairly odd. And I don’t really understand why, if it’s a team game, team orders are banned anyway – in some ways I question how you’re a team if you’re actually not allowed to co-operate on the track?

Also, Dickie, I for one would be very interested if you wrote a quick Idiot’s Guide To Motorsport, outlining the rules on different kinds of races, who the big players are, what the big races in the season are, and so on. I’d find it very interesting and it would also be helpful in terms of understanding your other motorsport-based entries!



Friday 30th July 2010, 4:37 pm

It’s a unique and weird sport, and the conflict between the interests of the teams and the drivers is key part of it. Hundreds of people all work to develop these cars and the teams spend hundreds of millions of quid in the process, but on a Sunday afternoon it all comes down to the nut holding the wheel, who really is only in it for themselves. So it’s a team sport, but reliant in individual performance, if that makes sense?

Team orders are banned because, well, it’s a sport. If Fernando Alonso wanted to win the race last Sunday, then he should’ve gone and passed Felipe Massa! It’s a hollow victory if you only win because you get your team to ask the person ahead of you to slow down.

It’s complicated though. If it were the last race of the season, and Alonso needed the extra points to win the championship and Massa couldn’t win it, no-one would’ve batted an eyelid. At that point, Alonso would have “beaten” Massa properly over the course of the season, so it’s more acceptable. In that sense, team orders are only partly banned (for things like last Sunday), and we’ve seen lots of teams enact them even since the ban was put in place.

I like the “idiot’s guide to motorsport” idea. Although it possibly wouldn’t be “quick”, might go on for a few posts. Once I start writing about this sort of stuff, I can carry on for a while!

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