x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Don't blame Ferrari for the charade; rule needs rethink

It wasn't so much what Ferrari did in yesterday's German Grand Prix that caused an upset, it was the clumsy charade that followed.

Fernando Alonso, left, can still win the championship but Felipe Massa's tilt is all but over.
Fernando Alonso, left, can still win the championship but Felipe Massa's tilt is all but over.

HOCKENHEIM // It wasn't so much what Ferrari did in yesterday's German Grand Prix that caused an upset, it was the clumsy charade that followed. But it is the sport's regulations that led the team to treat the wider world as idiots. In 2002, the FIA, motorsport's governing body, banned team orders that influence the outcome of a grand prix. That decision was taken in the wake of public outrage that followed the Austrian GP, when Ferrari ordered Rubens Barrichello to cede to Michael Schumacher. The Brazilian slowed down very blatantly at the race's final corner and both drivers were jeered on the podium.

At the time, Ferrari had a significant championship advantage and shuffling the positions made no difference in the overall scheme of things - other than to those who might have had Barrichello's name on a betting slip. The difference yesterday was that Ferrari acted in its own best interests and, significantly, those of the sport, because it helped keep Fernando Alonso on the fringe of a world title battle that Felipe Massa has almost no chance of winning.

Lewis Hamilton's fourth place was enough to maintain his lead in the championship standings, on 157 points, over Jenson Button (143), Mark Webber (136), Sebastian Vettel (136) and Alonso (123). If the Ferraris had not switched positions, the Spaniard would have 116 points and Massa 92, with eight of the 19 races to go. Team orders are a part of the sport - and always have been. They have frequently been deployed since that pivotal ruling in 2002, but the methodology is usually subtle: a team might tell a driver to save fuel, for instance, or tell him to cut engine revs because his oil temperature is a little high. Such instructions are commonplace and rarely cause much commotion. Ferrari could have employed the same tactic yesterday and nobody would have batted an eyelid.

Post-race, the rules deflected Ferrari from the path of honesty, and the team was tripped by its gauche pretence. Massa claimed he had struggled a little once he had switched from super-soft to hard tyres, although his lap times failed to bear this out. Nor did it help that a TV graphic showed a significant throttle lift moments before Alonso passed. Christian Horner, the Red Bull sporting director, called it "probably the clearest team order I have ever seen". Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, preferred not to become involved in the debate. "You guys have exactly the same information that I have," he said, "so I'm sure you can draw your own conclusions."

In reality, the rule requires a rethink. Ferrari have been punished for acting in a manner that was wholly logical given the current championship situation - something that was not the case in 2002.