Six races in 10 weekends. Such are the simple yet hectic figures that will determine the outcome of this season's Formula One world championship. First, though, Ferrari, the title outsiders, have to fight another battle away from the track. On Wednesday, four days before its home race at Monza, the team will attend a disciplinary hearing in Paris, where the FIA's World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) will decide what action to take in the wake of the "team orders" controversy that erupted following the German Grand Prix on July 25.
Felipe Massa was on course for victory that afternoon, but heeded an instruction to slow momentarily and allow teammate Fernando Alonso to go past and win the race. It was not so much what Ferrari did that caused the issue, however, as the manner of its execution. Team orders might have been banned since 2002, but they have never really gone away. In 2008, for instance, Lewis Hamilton won the German Grand Prix by fighting back through the field after McLaren mistimed a pit stop. In the process, he passed teammate Heikki Kovalainen, who did not quite wave him through but put up so little resistance that he might as well have done.
"I owe a big thank you to Heikki," Hamilton said afterwards. "He was a great teammate. He saw that I was quicker, didn't put up a huge fight and enabled me to get past." Afterwards, nobody batted an eyelid. Ferrari was fined US$100,000 (Dh367,200) after this year's Germany race - the maximum penalty race stewards could apply. But the WMSC has a range of punitive options. It is most likely that Ferrari will be docked points in one or both world championships, for drivers and constructors, although the team could be excluded altogether.
The nature of the penalty has a particular fascination at this stage of the campaign, because it is inevitable that one of the title contenders will deploy unspoken team orders before the campaign is out. It happened late in 2008, when Kimi Raikkonen, the former Ferrari driver, eased up to abet teammate Massa's title chances, and also during the 2007 finale in Brazil, where Massa sacrificed certain victory in Brazil to let Raikkonen through, a move that secured the Finn's only world title.
With 150 points potentially up for grabs, and only 41 points separating Fernando Alonso in fifth place from Hamilton in first, pacesetters McLaren-Mercedes and Red Bull-Renault insist it is too soon to contemplate such tactics, but the critical point is nigh. No matter what happens in Paris next week, subtle team orders are unlikely to disappear anytime soon. In the shorter term, Red Bull have other items on their agenda. Mark Webber lost the championship lead in Belgium last weekend - he trails Hamilton by three points after finishing second to the Englishman. The team's sporting director, Christian Horner, concedes that the Italian Grand Prix is likely to be an exercise in damage limitation.
"Monza has lots of straights and not many corners and so doesn't play to our car's strengths," he said. "I'm sure we can get a decent result, but it's likely to be our weakest circuit of the year." firstname.lastname@example.org