The Pandora's Box of Formula One
So Ferrari has done it again, this time at the inaugural U.S GP at Austin. By opening the seal on Felipe Massa’s gearbox and thereby relegating him five places on the grid Ferrari has once again opened the Pandora’s Box of Formula One – Team Order. Even before a wheel was turned at Austin, Ferrari’s ‘tactical’ move sent tongues wagging both on and off the paddock. Though Christian Horner and Sebastian Vettel dismissed it as something that they couldn’t control, the disappointment was well evident in their voices. Had the result of the race been any different, with Alonso finishing ahead of his championship rival Vettel, things would have shaped up a whole lot differently. It does take the championship to the wire by extending the title decider to the last race at Interlagos, Brazil. It is famous for throwing up unpredictable results during race weekends, but the larger question of ethics, morality and legality has been raised once again.
Motorsports, especially Formula One is not new to team orders or controversies surrounding it and Ferrari has found itself time and again at the center of many such controversies. The history of team orders can be traced well back to the origin of Formula One itself. Williams, Red Bull, McLaren, Renault and many other teams have done it in one way or other in the past. The only difference is that Ferrari has done it more often, that too in broad daylight.
“Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited” was FIA ruling post 2002 Austrian GP in which Rubens Barichello was told by his team principal to let his team mate Michael Schumacher pass to take victory. But post 2011 the same FIA has overturned this rule lifting a ban on team orders in Formula One. It earned Ferrari a $one million fine way back in 2002 but landed a mere $100,000 fine in 2010 German GP where they asked Massa to let Alonso pass in a more subtle way.
McLaren has also been associated with such incidents be it the one involving Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso in 2007 Monaco GP or the one involving Heki Kovalainen and Hamilton in 2008. Then there are also the examples of drivers defying team orders like the famous Mark Webber incident at Silverstone 2011 or the one involving Jarno Trulli and Ralf Schumacher at the 2006 Japanese GP. In both cases, the drivers simply chose to ignore the message from the pit lane asking them to either forfeit a position or not to race their team mate. There are also the more subtle ones like pitting a car for providing an advantage for the other driver or delaying the pit stop itself!
Shuffling places at pit stop is one thing but forfeiting a place on a track is different. Thankfully the most extreme ones are not to be seen in recent times like blocking or delaying your team mate’s opponents on track as what was done by Eddie Ervine in 1997 for Michael Schumacher or David Coulthard holding up Schumacher in 1999 at Suzuka. Those kind of tactics in today’s atmosphere could have far reaching repercussions across the Formula One fraternity. Hopefully with DRS in place such incidents would be hard to replicate in today’s race. Then again we have seen that even a slight delay behind Narain Karthikeyan was enough for Vettel to lose a position at Austin last weekend.
Having seen what Ferrari has done last weekend, add to that what Luca di Montezemolo had to say that they will fight till the last lap at Interlagos, things don’t seem very easy for Vettel at least for now. It remains to be seen if they will pull another stunt with Massa again, this time like the Ervine kind in case Massa happens to find himself ahead of Vettel in the race! Who knows, Ferrari could very well send in a lightly fueled Massa for qualifying bringing him ahead of Vettel at turn one!
Having said that, what Ferrari has pulled out at Austin last week was hailed as a tactical master stroke by many. It quite ‘rightly’ kept their only driver with a chance fighting for championship. It might be well within the rule book this year but the larger question still remains – was it morally right? After seeing such tactics one cannot blame the audience if they wonder how deep such roots run among the teams and whether or not Formula one is another well-orchestrated wresting entertainment match! No wonder some section of the press call it the “Bernie Eccelstone circus”!