F1’s own ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy

Here in the United States of America our government has been following a policy that is both controversial and galvanized along political party lines. It is called the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and pertains to homosexuals serving in the military. It is a policy restricting the United States military from efforts to discover or reveal closeted gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members or applicants, while barring those who are openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service.

While this has nothing to do with F1 and is a horrible analogy, there is a common thread when it comes to the “team orders” issue, exacerbated this Sunday at the German Grand Prix, which has F1 owning its own version of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

The issue at stake is the FIA sporting regulations article 39.1 which states “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”. It seems, however, that the backlash toward Ferrari for their overtly performed team orders is the major sticking point for many. While F1 is predominantly a European sport, I see most of the gnashing of teeth done by the British press and fans which stands to reason based upon the simple math of volume alone and not because the British fans like to gnash teeth.

To recap, team orders happen in F1. They are illegal in F1. They deprive some fans of good, competitive wheel-to-wheel racing and genuine fate. They ensure a team’s investment and ultimate goal as best orchestrated for optimum advantage. They are debasing half of the drivers on the grid as they are lagging behind their teammates. They ignore mathematical possibilities to allow for each driver to win a championship on his own merit. They afford a team to best chance to build itself around one shining star and provided a dedicated, team effort to that driver’s success. They scupper races for a team’s major competitor and protect, tactically, the number one driver during a race. And much, much more.

If I have heard it once, I have heard it a thousand times from the British press all the way down to the complex fan, “the fans aren’t idiots so don’t treat us as such by orchestrating such a blatant team order”! Almost everyone concedes that team order happen in F1 but what they detest is those team order being brazenly displayed. So the fans aren’t idiots? Are you sure about that?

Are we suggesting our own “don’t ask, don’t tell policy” of sorts by maintain that team orders happen, we know it but we just want you to lie better and hide or more? In essence, we fans won’t ask about team orders but just don’t show them to us either? This seems a bit daft to me. Can we not admit that F1 is a team sport and the team tactics are always going to be developed for the political, financial and mathematical opportunity that best fits the teams desires regardless of our love of Massa?

David Coulthard said it best, and he knows as he was McLaren’s number two driver behind teammate Mika Hakkinen, when he said the following:

“Team orders happen in F1. They always have and they always will. Just because Ferrari were ham-fisted in breaking the rules, does it make their transgression any worse? I cannot believe some of the hypocrisy we’ve heard in the past couple of days.

The only way to stop team orders would be to race with one car. As long as there are two (and some teams want three — how difficult would it be then to control team orders?) the rule is unenforceable.
Team principals should be allowed to do the best they can for their team, for their employees, for their owners. That is what they always used to do. At some point during the past 60 years we seem to have lost sight of that fact.”

Ignoring the elephant in the room might be a better analogy than “don’t ask, don’t tell” but that only works if the elephant is miniaturized and hidden on a bookshelf in said room apparently. No, we’d rather be treated like idiots and lied too even more not only by words but actions on track. Don’t say you didn’t issue team orders when you clearly did but don’t do team orders in a way that is obvious or else we are forced to listen to your lies about how you didn’t do it…We’re not idiots you know!

Ferrari has, in the past, made little noise about their team orders. When executed, they were accused of it by McLaren but usually did it in a relatively mundane manner on track. McLaren have always trumpeted their piety in suggesting they don’t have team orders while lambasting Ferrari for theirs. This is just good old fashioned head games in F1 and I love McLaren’s jibes but as they are more discreet about their team orders, they have honored the fans by not only saying they have no team orders but almost looking as if they have none either. Good on them, I say. This, in turn, apparently is enough for we fans to ignore and feel good about the racing. Who is the idiot now?

There is an entire camp of fans who are, what I call, the Halcyon Crowd. They live for the golden age of F1 and I know this as I am one of them. They wish the purity of the sport were still present where men raced for one goal, to win. They had teams but the teammate was your closest nemesis and the other teams were hostile enemies. There was a code of honor, so called, and men raced for themselves while teams provided the vehicle. At least that’s what our romanticism remembers on our behalf. That hasn’t existed for decades unfortunately and now we are cheering for a different kind of series. A series that is moved by markets, money and politics. Such is the beast.

Team orders have and always will exist. The current regulation makes us pious in our criticism of any team who patronizes us with Austria 2002 or Germany 2010 antics. No, we’d much rather see a fake pass that seems quasi realistic and stick our heads in the sand saying, well…he did pass him so that parlays my piety this time. I say do away with the regulation and let the teams run. Let them manage their better interests and intra-team politics on who they like better. If you are betting on Massa, you shouldn’t be. If you’re betting on Petrov, you shouldn’t be. To do so just means you aren’t that good of an odds maker.

This boils down to what exactly the term “interfere with a race result are prohibited”. What is interfering with the race mean? Ferrari doesn’t feel they interfered with the race. They finished 1,2. Easy enough. The finishing order of their 1,2 was their choice. They chose to determine who, in their team, would be the best option for winning the title and arranged their claim on first and second as they saw fit. Is Massa mathematically out of contention? No, not from a fans perspective. Is he out of contention from the team’s perspective? Yes.

A modified team order ruling may be sought and perhaps there is an agreement that FOTA, FIA and FOM can come to an agreement. If all we want, as F1 fans, is to be lied to and the team orders to seem somewhat legitimate, then we are the idiots we claim not to be. The stakes, money and politics are too high to do away with team orders and that is part of F1 like it or not. How we choose to view that reality is up to us but I say do away with the regulation or modify it and let us embrace what is clearly a tactical nuance of F1…team sport where the team is battling the others in a war fought with speed, technology and money. I know, I know….where is 1968 when you need it?

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