x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Teams with wins under orders carry asterisk in the air

To our honest fraternity, it will be irrelevant that some endorse the concept of team orders while others of us find team orders about as appealing as gout.

Fernando Alonso, the leader in the race for the drivers’ championship, before practice at Yas Marina Circuit yesterday.
Fernando Alonso, the leader in the race for the drivers’ championship, before practice at Yas Marina Circuit yesterday.

In addition to a mental list of the teeming numerical possibilities for this Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, I shall bring along my asterisk.

I keep it high upon my keyboard just above the "8" and occasionally I wander up there and deploy it.

Once a nobody among punctuation marks, the asterisk has annexed some fame through sports in recent decades, serving nobly as a tool for discrediting any "achievement" a witness might deem unworthy or tainted. It will become notably handy today if Fernando Alonso wins the Formula One drivers' championship by seven points or fewer.

As much discussed in recent weeks, such an outcome would mean Alonso would owe his third title to the seven unearned points he raked in on July 25 at Hockenheim, when Ferrari asked his teammate Felipe Massa to slow from first place to second on lap 47 so that Alonso could pass from second to first.

And as I pledge the asterisk fraternity alongside defending champion Jenson Button, former honcho Max Mosley and others, I join not out of purity or prudery, as I long since learned to leave those things at home when venturing out to the study in sin we call sport.

I just figure everybody agreed to the F1 rules upon entry to the 2010 season, and that those rules included the eight-season-old Rule 39:1 about tampering with race results - known as "team orders" - and that anyone who gained from brazenly flouting those rules gets an asterisk. Others might disagree and reach no closer than the ampersand. We all deserve punctuational freedom.

In fact, as the Red Bull Racing team mulls whether it, too, should buck Rule 39:1 because it might help Mark Webber or Sebastian Vettel claim the title, one recent utterance left me in a cynic's amazement in a corruption-addled century.

For the deeply unofficial prize of Best Comment amid all the buzzy Formula One chatter of late, then, we turn to a Mr Dietrich Mateschitz of Salzburg, Austria - billionaire, owner of a Fijian island and the man who devised the drink Red Bull, thus shaking the world to its nerve endings.

Queried by the newspaper Kleine Zeitung of Graz, Austria, Mr Mateschitz may well have floated above motorsport and into greater beauty when he endorsed honest racing and said, "A second place under correct circumstances might be better than a win on grounds of orders and confirmations."

That wise truism, so rare after the avalanche of sporting subterfuge, sounded as if it came out of the past century, from some better, pristine time that never really existed except in widely believed mythology.

During that century, in American baseball in 1961, the semi-famous Roger Maris surpassed the venerated home run record of the thoroughly famous Babe Ruth, but did so in a season that lasted 162 games where Ruth's 60-homer year of 1927 had lasted only 154. The sport's commissioner, a Ruth aficionado, judged Maris's feat wanting, and a sports writer - you know, a know-it-all - suggested Maris's 61 repose alongside an asterisk.

For decades, baseball fans believed an asterisk graced record books even though it never actually did, proving that people can walk around through life with mental asterisks if they like, as have many regarding athletes whose prowess owed to syringes.

At the absurd Austrian Grand Prix of 2002, when Ferrari team orders sent Michael Schumacher past pole-sitter Rubens Barrichello, an enormous mental asterisk hovered above the A-1 Ring. Crowds jeered. Schumacher patted Barrichello on the cheek, switched podium perches with Barrichello and said, "I take no joy from this victory."

Patrick Head, technical director for Williams-BMW, said: "In 22 years of auto racing I had never seen something disgusting like this." Italy's Gazzetta dello Sport gauged it "a nasty day of shame". The ugliness spurred the birth of Rule 39:1.

Asked last evening if he would deserve a title he won by seven points or fewer, Alonso answered with a ringing, "Yes," and probably even meant it. He followed with, "I think that is enough talk about that; all that matters in the moment is Sunday night." He really ought to win the race - please! - to curb years and years of more such talk.

To our asterisk fraternity, it will be irrelevant that some endorse the concept of team orders while others of us find team orders about as appealing as gout. It will not be compelling that some other people might have cheated uncaught.

We will rate Red Bull's second above Ferrari's first until further informed. We will have to go on only with the 2010 rule book, the guilty verdict, FIA's insufficient punishment and the cheating we know about before we press "shift" and reach for the "8".

cculpepper@thenational.ae