Amazing how the bit of routine competitive tension we saw from Ferrari at Hockenheim with the team orders conflict has snowballed into something striking at the very heart of the sport. As the team finds itself in the dock of the world council hearing next week, there are so many plots and sub-plots to consider.
Since the team orders rule was imposed eight years ago, the interpretation was always very loose. It wasn't meant to be otherwise. The only intention of the regulation was that teams didn't blatantly remove all visible competitive tension from a race between its drivers - especially if that race was for the win. Otherwise people might question why they had invested time or money in watching the event. The sub-text was that no one really minded if a bit of manipulation went on as a team sought to maximise its championship chances - so long as it wasn't obvious to the casual viewer, such as at Austria 2002. So since then we've had slightly longer pitstops for one guy, or a slower in-lap - or any number of even less visible means.
No one really minded. The casual viewer didn't notice, the specialist fans could but didn't mind because they understood what the sport was about and how it worked, how team orders in the chase of a championship was the most natural thing in the world. So were the casual fans being cheated? Well, in their very casualness they were willingly deceived. If they just wanted a bit of entertainment, then they'd been entertained. What was the problem?
FIA headquarters © Sutton
Meantime if you invested the time in following F1 properly and in depth, you'd not only understand the delineation between individual and team competition and how it varied according to the situation, you'd also be able to see the joins, you'd notice that slower in-lap, read between the lines of the explanations afterwards.
It wasn't ideal that a regulation had to be imposed, because it obfuscated the reality. Without the rule there was no deceit necessary - willing or not. The casual fan didn't notice, the specialist fan had another layer of interest to look at and no one was doing anything illegal. But then Jean Todt went and took advantage of that delicate and widely understood dynamic like an elephant in jackboots by insisting on a totally unnecessary and blatant exploitation of it. Barrichello objected and the whole thing was blown wide open, making necessary that very awkward rule - all for the benefit of the casual fan.
That rule cannot comfortably sit within the ethos of racing - as it has been virtually since the sport was invented. Todt's actions resulted in the imposition of a rule that was always going to create a fault line for controversy - and at Hockenheim a few weeks ago it duly arrived.
The competitive emotions behind Rob Smedley's clearly reluctant instruction to his driver are just a natural part of racing - and that's what led to action being taken. It was a reluctant application of a rule that had been reluctantly introduced.
So at the council hearing a week on Wednesday, there is the opportunity to put this mismatch to bed once and for all. A clear and easily understood explanation of the distinction between team orders and team strategy, making clear why it is acceptable in some circumstances for a fight between team-mates to be neutralised, would rid the sport of this awkwardness and potential for derision.
If, on the other hand, the council decides to try to rigidly impose the letter of the regulation, then what is the evidence? Yes, we all understand what happened. But that's not the same thing as evidence. All Alonso did was overtake a car that had slowed. Why did Massa back off? What evidence is there that it was not his own decision? What proof is there that 'Fernando is faster than you' was a code for 'get out the way'?
If a harsh judgement is imposed without evidence and Ferrari decides to take it to the court of appeal, where evidence would weigh much more heavily, then things get very messy - and no one benefits.
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