Monday, July 26, 2010

F1: Fuming at Ferrari after Felipe Fiasco

I didn't write about yesterday's German Grand Prix yesterday partly because I was too angry, partly because I had to go out, and partly when I got back in I'd had a few glasses of very nice fizzy wine. By the way, thank you, Charles and Siobhan, for that.

18 hours from the end of the race has done nothing to dampen my fury at what happened 18 laps from the end of the race.

At this point, Brazilian driver Felipe Massa was in the lead. Not by much, but he had been leading the race from the start having taken advantage of an aggressive move by pole sitter Sebastian Vettel which took him and Alonso out of contention.

Massa has not had the best season, and is well behind in the World Drivers' Championship. On the other hand, Fernando Alonso badly needed a win to boost his challenge for this year's title. Yesterday he started out around 50 points adrift of leader Lewis Hamilton and the 25 points for victory put him a mere 34 points behind.

Alonso clearly wasn't chuffed about being stuck behind his team-mate as a team radio transmission of him saying "this is ridiculous" shows.

Ted Kravitz, the BBC's man in the pitlane told us that there seemed to be a robust discusssion going on at Ferrari.

Over team radio we heard Massa's engineer, Rob Smedley, tell him that he could win this.

Smedley and Massa have a really close and trusting working relationship. Rob Smedley has never been allowed to forget the radio call to  a stressed Massa during the washout Malaysian grand prix last year in which he addresed him as "Felipe, baby." Massa has a whole load of trust and confidence in him in a relationship that's been built up over 5 years.

At 18 laps to go, with Alonso having failed to pass Massa on his own, Smedley said over the radio to Massa in a tone that implied that he was not happy about the task he'd been given:

"Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm that you've understood this message".

A few moments later, Massa slowed down and moved over so Alonso could pass him, depriving himself of a race victory.

Smedley then said to him. "Good lad, sorry"

To me that seems an utterly blatant breach of Article 39.1 of the Sporting Regulations which states that

"Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited."

This isn't the first time that we've seen something like that this season - in Turkey Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button had a superb sparring session between them brought to a halt by their engineers telling them they had to save fuel, which effectively maintained Lewis' lead over Jenson in the race.  Telling a driver not to attack, though is not the same as manipulating a result so that one driver gives his place to his team-mate.

Maximising points is important for teams, because their position in the Constructors' Championship impacts on the sponsorship they can attract. However, Ferrari is hardly short of a bob or two and they were heading for maximum points in the race regardless of the order in which their drivers finished.

After the race, Michael Schumacher eloquently and articulately presented the case for what Ferrari had done, saying that teams had to make decisions based on obtaining the best result for the team, and saying how those extra points for Alonso might be crucial if it came down to a close fight for the Drivers' title at the end of the season.

Schumi, of course, and Ferrari, was the reason the rule on team orders was introduced in the first place because of this incident:

At the time I was absolutely horrified to see Rubens Barrichello allow Michael Schumacher past him on the finish line, sacrificing his own well deserved victory at the request of his team.  I didn't like it then and I don't like it now.

The video clip shows that Rubens pulled over after then Ferrari team boss Jean Todt handed then technical director Ross Brawn a note.  Jean Todt is now head of the FIA, the body in charge of the sport. It reacted to this by fining Ferrari $100,000. To a team of great wealth, this is the equivalent of you or I having our Starbucks coffee money taken off us. They are being referred to the World Motorsport Council, but I won't hold my breath about anything coming out of that.

The recipient of the note in 2002, Ross Brawn, had to watch two of his drivers compete for the championship until the very last race of last season. He took the decision to let them fight it out amongst themselves with the proviso that they didn't take each other off. I think that promoted good relations across the whole team and was a highly sensible approach. In fact, having been beaten, Rubens Barrichello lent Jenson his private plane so he could stay a bit longer in Brazil and party after he won the championship there in the penultimate race of the season.

I always think that teams get the best out of drivers if they let them compete openly and don't try to manipulate things. Surely that's the way to better results. Much better to have two motivated drivers than one who's just there as the spare.

Christian Horner of Red Bull Racing would do well to follow Ross Brawn's example with his two drivers, Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel, either of whom could still win the championship. Twice this season the team has seemed to favour Vettel. The first time was in Turkey when Vettel pulled a daft move on Webber while they were 1st and 2nd and put himself out of the running and demoting Webber to 3rd where he finished. The team initially put the blame on Webber for this incident although they later retracted it. This didn't help when Mark Webber had his new upgraded front wing taken off him and given to Sebastian Vettel at Silverstone a few weeks later.

Now, I like both drivers - indeed they are together at 6 and 7 of my list of drivers. I think the Red Bull management has been shocking, though. The team has now come to an agreement that any upgrades will be given first to the driver in the leading position in the championship. As an aside, Eddie Jordan cheekily but cleverly asked Christian Horner on Saturday if this meant that there would be no upgrades available while Mark Webber was in top position.  Undoubtedly, there has been a great deal of unpleasantness which, with a bit of better management, could have been avoided.

I should be thrilled to bits at a Ferrari 1-2 today, delighted to see both drivers on the podium. I feel flat, though, because victory for Felipe was taken off him. Alonso may well have managed to get past him on his own without manipulation of the situation. I'm not alone. Twitter has been alight with fans complaining about what happened. The crowd in Germany were virtually silent when Alonso and Massa were given their prizes on the podium before erupting in support for Vettel, who finished third.

Yesterday's events were all the more poignant given that it was a year to the day since Felipe Massa had had that horrific accident in Hungary which put him out for the remainder of last season with a serious head injury. At that time, the Ferrari mechanics made a sign which they displayed before the race on Sunday 26th July saying Forza Felipe, Siamo con te, or Strengh, Felipe, we are with you. Regrettably, Hockenheim yesterday proved that sentiment was conditional.

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