It seems business interests may be behind Rubens Barrichello’s recent generosity in letting Michael Schumacher pass and win the Austrian grand prix.

The race was possibly of little interest to many of Crikey’s readers, but even if the race itself was not of interest, the reasons behind the staged finish will be.

In case you missed it, Ferrari’s Rubens Barrichello deliberately slowed down on the last lap to let team mate Michael Schumacher pass and win the race. This much was clear from the footage of the race and it has surprised no one that the two were driving to team orders.

Schumacher, Barrichello and the Ferrari team bosses will face a disciplinary hearing on 26 June.

Plenty of column space has been dedicated to this farce. Mostly it has been columnists like Gibbo Gibson – people who couldn’t generally give a rat’s tossbag about F1 – who have been loudest in condemning the sport and have reveled in the opportunity to stick the boots in.

Somewhat surprisingly, not all F1 fans have been upset by the staged finish, with a common sentiment being “so what? It happens all the time in other sports – look at cycling”. According to the organisers, the scandal apparently hasn’t hurt ticket sales for the upcoming British grand prix.

This isn’t the first time this has happened in F1, with the 1998 Australian grand prix in Melbourne being the “victim” of a staged finish between Mika Hakkinen and his McLaren teammate David Coulthard. The authorities clamped down, and seemingly forbid the practice.

So why has it happened again?

Well, the following explanation is a summary of an article we were alerted to on an F1 discussion board. As with all internet chat boards, this one should be taken with a grain of salt. Add to that the author’s own grain of salt, as the author readily concedes that his report hasn’t been properly vetted. But the author (who is also the editor of the discussion board) is apparently well connected in motor racing circles, so the yarn carries some weight.

But we at Crikey claim absolutely no credit for this expose, and equally wash our hands of responsibility for any errors from here on.

According to the story, Fiat, which owns Ferrari, made the decision 14 days prior to the Austrian grand prix to float Ferrari. Fiat is financially on its knees, and the float of Ferrari is necessary to Fiat’s survival. Recently Fiat shed 2,800 jobs from its 100,000-strong Italian workforce and the Italian government has looked at assisting them with their current financial difficulties.

As a Holden lover and former owner of a brown Kingswood HQ station wagon (column shift auto, 202 motor, bench seat – a great beast of a car), I am of course duty bound to remind Crikey readers what “Fiat” stands for – “Fix It Again, Tony”.

Well, “fix it” they most certainly did.

Unfortunately, the Austrian grand prix is yet another fable about the impurification of sport when business becomes mixed up in athletic endeavour.

You see, Fiat’s advisors have pencilled in October as the date for the float of Ferrari. Unfortunately, the F1 season doesn’t end until 13 October, but they’d like to have the prospectus well and truly out to the market before then.

The marketers and pencil pushers behind the float of Ferrari would love to be able to say “Ferrari – Winners of the 2002 Formula One championship” in the prospectus. It has a much better ring to it than “Leaders of the 2002 Formula One championship”.

So the Ferrari team have, apparently, decided that Michael Schumacher is the pony to bet on, and have thrown their lot in with him getting sufficient points to have secured the F1 championship in time for the float in October.

Hence the Ferrari team’s decision to get Barrichello to step aside and let the Schu take the honours in the Austrian grand prix.

The Ferrari aim is to wrap up the championship by October, not to let the better of their two drivers win in each particular race.

The podium scenes of Schumacher gracefully stepping aside to let Barrichello take the winner’s position gave credence to what every observer realised – that Barrichello had rolled over to let Schumacher win.

Interestingly, it appears that the call had gone out with 9 laps remaining for Barrichello to let Schumacher win. Barrichello had made a pit stop on lap 62 of 71. Up to lap 62, his average lap speed was 1.09.700 minutes. For the next 8 laps, his times were all around that speed, his slowest being 1:10.357.

Schumacher was setting the track on fire, but had barely made up ground on Barrichello. It was only on the final lap, where Barrichello’s time had blown out to 1:13.004 (and that extra 3 seconds is as good as an eternity in F1), that Schumacher managed to overtake his team mate.

Clearly, Barrichello wanted to send the message that he was the better driver and was driving to team orders.

He rarely gets the chance to stick it to Schumacher, so he seemingly took the opportunity to play top fiddle with relish.

He could have slowed marginally in the earlier laps and made it seem that Schumacher had made up the ground on merit. But his lap times after receiving the message to roll over indicate that he would drive to team orders, but on his terms.

Barrichello’s place in the Ferrari team was not settled until recently. With his contract up for renewal, the Ferrari team was not necessarily keen to keep him on and Barrichello reportedly had other attractive offers he could consider.

But when the Ferrari float plans came into play, Barrichello could have potentially provided a not inconsiderable fly in the ointment.

If he left Ferrari, he was one of the few drivers who could challenge Schumacher’s domination of the 2002 F1 championship. He might not have beaten Schumacher, but he could have pinched enough points to make it difficult for the Schu to claim the F1 championship prior to October.

So, with the impending float apparently driving their decision, Ferrari recently re-signed Barrichello on more generous terms, but according to our source, strictly on the proviso that he would drive to team orders.

He has done that, but at the same time managed to stroke his own ego by showing to the world that he whupped Schumacher at the Austrian grand prix.

We shall see when Ferrari is floated whether the controversy generated by one driver’s ego has dented the car-maker’s reputation more than the good press they might generate by splashing “Winners of the 2002 Formula One championship” all over their prospectus.

Because of the contrived finish and the prospect of penalties to come – including possible suspensions from races later in the year – Ferrari may not even be able to make that claim come October.

Peter Fray

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