Ferrari, the biggest name in motor racing, has had two important wins lately.
Most visible was Fernando Alonso taking the chequered flag in the Italian Grand Prix on Sunday.
The Spanish dual world champion, in his first outing in one of the revered red cars at the Monza circuit on the northern outskirts of Milan, delivered what the tifosi, the fanatical Italian fans, had come to see. It was as much a victory for the precision of the Ferrari pit crew during Alonso’s compulsory stop to change tyres as his almost flawless driving.
Four days earlier, in Paris, the most successful team in F1 had another victory.
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A 15-man “judging body” of the Federation International de l’Automobile’s World Motor Sport Council — including an Australian, Garry Connelly, of Brisbane, as well as F1 commercial tsar Bernie Ecclestone — decided against any further sanction of Ferrari over the German GP on July 25.
In that race Ferrari’s Brazilian driver Felipe Massa led until lap 49, when — after repeated radio messages from the pit wall — he slowed to let Alonso take the lead for the remaining 18 laps and win the race ahead of him.
I wrote here on July 27 that the move did the world championship a favour, as it maintained a five-man tussle for the title, although the sport’s regulations prohibit team orders that interfere with a race result and potentially prejudice the championship and motor sport generally.
Ferrari was fined US$100,000 on the day and it was resolved last Wednesday, after the subsequent “prosecution” — ironically formally launched by former Ferrari team boss, now FIA president Jean Todt, although he was not present at the Paris hearing – culminated with no further penalty.
The WMSC could have issued a reprimand or hit Ferrari with a bigger fine, a time penalty that may have relegated Alonso and/or Massa in the race results, exclusion from those results, a suspension or even a disqualification, and loss of constructors’ and drivers’ world championship points — as former FIA president Max Mosley wanted. But the only additional impost made on the team was that it foot the bill of the hearing – a few airfares, hotel rooms and admin costs. Petty cash for Ferrari.
So eight years after another Brazilian, Rubens Barrichello, succumbed at the end of the 2002 Austrian GP to let Ferrari teammate Michael Schumacher win, at the specific instruction of Todt, and it was fined US$1 million, this team that is the undoubted centerpiece of F1 has got off for one tenth that price. It was that 2002 controversy which saw the formalisation of the rule outlawing team orders.
The WMSC did one other thing last Wednesday — it handballed the whole team orders issue to the Formula One Sporting Working Group to review.
It didn’t explain what this group is or who sits on it, but the website of the Formula One Teams Association reveals it has just such a committee – comprising a representative of each of the 12 F1 teams.
And the chairman of the group is Christian Horner, who happens to be the team principal of Red Bull Racing for which Australia’s Mark Webber races — and leads the world championship again, for the third time, after his main rival Lewis Hamilton self-destructed his McLaren car on the opening lap at Monza.
Clearly the notion of team orders and any manipulation of competition is distasteful to the majority of onlookers, although many Australians have been hoping to see some sign from Red Bull Racing of favouritism towards Webber over his German teammate Sebastian Vettel now that the championship is approaching its climax.
But any such preference would go against everything that Red Bull Racing owner Dietrich Mateschitz, his motor sport right-hand man Helmut Marko, and hands-on team boss Horner have espoused all year.
Really it’s a cop-out for the WMSC, an arm of the governing FIA, to delegate the finding of a practical, workable solution to this hot potato to the F1 teams. And it’s hard to see the picture becoming much, if any, clearer over the next two months in which the world championship will be decided.
But the nine-page WMSC document makes fascinating reading (in full here) — particularly Ferrari’s contention that the radio messages to Massa did not amount to an order or instruction but rather “relevant information, based on which he decided, for the benefit of the team, to allow Alonso to pass”.
The politics of it all aside, Webber contending for the title continues to elevate F1 on the Australian sporting spectrum.
*Back Page Lead is a sports opinion website that provides sports content to Crikey.