FIA’s decision: ‘can you confrim you understand?’

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The FIA decision has left many fans disgruntled, hostile and beside themselves with frustration. The siren call of “Ferrari International Assistance” is echoing through the carbon fiber walls of F1. The art of name-calling and nationalism have been blamed on some occasions for the outburst but the matter remains largely open for scrutiny.

On one side you have the “robbed” fan that was deprived of thrilling, honest and pure racing. On the other side there is the “team orders have always existed” fan who believes it to be a part of the sport. Which is right? Which is wrong? That depends on which camp you are in (although there are more than two sides to this, we focus on two for simplicities sake).

The FIA have released their rationale for the decision to take no further action against Ferrari in the Germany Grand Prix team orders incident. Although fined $100,000 for the incident, many suggest this is next to nothing as far as punishment goes. The possibilities on the table were, according to Mr. Noble at AUTOSPORT, “a $100,000 fine, a five-second penalty for Alonso, which would have relegated him to second, and the withdrawal of drivers’ and teams’ points from Hockenheim, suspended for 2010 and given back if no similar event occurred during the remainder of the season”.

While both Williams F1 and Sauber were in defense of Ferrari, some will argue that Sauber is a biased endorsement as they currently have Ferrari power in the back of their chassis. That leaves Williams F1 as the sole, unbiased supporter or are they? Williams F1 have, in my limited recollection, usually taken the opposite side of Ferrari’s initiatives in the past and their endorsement is a bit of a surprise to me.

So what was actually on trial yesterday? Ferrari or regulation 39.1 banning team orders? Some journalists have called this a horrible decision, some have blamed FIA president Jean Todt and his past employment at Ferrari as the culprit while others have recognized Todt’s move of absconding from the proceedings as a sign that he was in no way influential in the decision. Some journalists are not Ferrari fans and that is painfully clear in their words and logic. Fair enough, it’s nothing more than opinion.

For me, the decision hinges on a few elements but let’s start with F1’s boss and FOM CEO Bernie Ecclestone. Ecclestone publicly derided the team order regulation and said it is time to look at this issue and address the regulation that is misplaced in F1. I am paraphrasing here but in essence, he felt it was not a reality in F1. I suspect he, like the FIA, find the regulation untenable and difficult to prove or police.

Ferrari’s assertion, that they were merely giving the driver information and offering no explicit order to move over, is not something most fans believe to be the case. They assume there were instructions given prior to the grand prix that Massa was to move over if the team told him Alonso was faster. That very well could be the case but the only way to prove that would be if Massa or a team member were to come forward with that information and written would be the best proof.

Ferrari also suggests that giving the driver information that he then has the discretion of using does not constitute a team order in which a driver is explicitly told what to do. They argue that even implying what the team would like him to do is not a team order. A team order, to Ferrari, is when you tell the driver explicitly and under no other pretenses what to do whilst on track—“Felipe, Alonso is faster than you so you must let him pass you now…confirm you understand that you are to let Alonso pass you”.

Ferrari maintains that the decision was Massa’s and they merely provided information to him and he chose his course of action. Does anyone believe that? Probably not but can you prove that isn’t the case without Massa’s admitting he was told to let Alonso pass him if the team said “Alonso is faster than you”? If you can prove it, the FIA would like to speak with you about your evidence. Otherwise, the FIA cannot prove it and as such, they have admitted that proving team order or policing the regulation is really a challenge and nigh on impossible.

Ferrari offered examples of team communication that they consider equally suspect from McLaren and Red Bull. They were referring to the “save fuel Jenson” or the “you don’t have to save fuel now Jenson” comments we all heard on the world feed during the Turkish Grand Prix of 2010. Ferrari argued that these communications could equally be coded instruction to hold position.

They also offered an incident I have mentioned several times, the German Grand Prix of 2008 on the exact same corner as the Massa/Alonso incident. Lewis Hamilton was allowed to pass Heikki Kovalainen and go on to win the race by passing Massa and Piquet Jr. As clear as the German GP team order incident is to Ferrari detractors so too is the German GP incident in 2009 for McLaren detractors. The difference being the radio communication and more dramatic or ham-fisted manor in which Massa allowed the pass.

All of this is academic, however, because the FIA did decide that team orders were issued and that Ferrari had interfered with the result of a race. They are of like mind that Ferrari’s lack of appeal upon being fined $100,000 was also evidence that the team knew they had been punished accordingly for their actions.

So why the lack of further punishment? Perhaps you can lay blame on the FIA, its team orders regulation that are nearly impossible to accurately police or the fact that the FIA are favoring Ferrari. Whatever the reason you choose, just know that Ferrari made a good case that the even application of this regulation has not been handled very well (assuming the examples they gave were evidence enough). The FIA realize that the ambiguity of other teams potential coded messages have not also been addressed and this would open a Pandora’s box. Perhaps the FIA feel Ferrari broke the rules but so are other teams and while not quite as ham-fisted, they too have not been called to the carpet.

Either way, let’s go back to my first point. Bernie Ecclestone is no fan of the team order ban in the FIA regulations and the FIA have chosen to take the opportunity to admonish Ferrari for team orders, stay firm on the $100,000 fine and open a new investigation on how to address the team order issue. In essence, it’s all very Jean Todt of them to be honest and what Ecclestone wants in F1, Ecclestone usually gets. Todt is his own man but he too knows the legal wrangling this left-over Mosley regulation can cause and like the flexible wing debate, the FIA will look to a new set of regulations to eliminate cheating or depriving the fan of good, clean racing.

Team orders exist. A team has a right to team tactics and as they are paying the bills, bearing the expenses and creating the entertainment, they have the right to determine how they approach each race. That right is hampered by the team order regulation but not eliminated. Ferrari got caught being obvious just like Austria 2002 but the fact remains, McLaren and Red Bull could arguable be accused of orchestrating the team tactics and the lack parity in the team order regulation over the years has created an environment that may have influenced Ferrari’s decision.

Bottom line? The FIA know all three teams are orchestrating the races as they see fit, they can’t prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt and feel Ferrari were playing within what the FIA has been allowing for the last several year but were dullards for doing it in such a obvious way. They have no recourse other than to address the matter head on with the Sporting Working Group and come up with a better solution for the future. All in all, it’s not a bad outcome as the new direction will hopefully insure a better regulation for all teams to operate by. Team orders exist. F1 is a team sport and we should expect team tactics even if it doesn’t allow for the most pure, basic, competitive racing…watch Indycar if you don’t like it. For me, it’s all part of F1’s team-centered system and tactical appeal. Was I robbed that Massa let Alonso past? No…but then I don’t bet on F1 and neither should you. Why? Because it’s a team sport and team orders exist!

PS-You can stop with the “this is bigger than Spygate” talk, that’s just fanboi-sim at its worst.

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