Team orders have played a defining role in Formula One on a number of occasions. Some are more controversial than others, notably the very telegraphed ‘radio communication’ between Felipe Massa and his race engineer Rob Smedley about two thirds of the way through the 2010 German Grand Prix at the Hockenheimring.
Let’s start with legality of team orders. At that point in time, Article 39.1 of the Sporting Regulations, according to the FIA, said clearly that team orders were forbidden, and had been since the end of the 2002 season. Scuderia Ferrari had been involved in a team order situation that year, allowing Michael Schumacher to pass teammate Rubens Barrichello at the final corner of the Austrian Grand Prix. Schumacher returned the favour later in the year by letting the Paulista win at Indianapolis by a mere 0.011 seconds at the finish line.
Fast forward to 2010’s German Grand Prix. Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel fought tooth and nail towards the first corner as the race got under way, with the Spaniard holding station on the racing line ahead of the eventual 2010 World Champion. Massa, however, seized the opportunity and took the lead via an audacious overtake around the outside, grabbing the race by the scruff of its neck.
Ferrari pitted both cars early, responding to Red Bull Racing’s early pit stop gamble. The Milton Keynes squad thought it may be good to get Vettel into clean air so he could catch up with the Prancing Horses. McLaren attempted the same strategy as Maranello’s finest, but Lewis Hamilton found himself amidst a scrap between Nico Rosberg, Schumacher and Robert Kubica.
Meanwhile, Massa was still leading, even though the gap between himself and his teammate fluctuated up to a maximum of 4 seconds, which was still not enough to insure victory. This continued until the controversial transmission on Lap 49, when Smedley said to Massa via radio: “Okay… so… Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?”
Smedley’s tone was very hesitant and somewhat unwilling, as it gave clue that Ferrari was more supportive of their top driver than the long serving trooper that has been through so much, including being fractionally close to winning the title in 2008, a potential career-ending accident and much rehabilitation to get back behind the wheel again.
The ‘overtake’ happened when Massa was slow coming out of the hairpin, and the Brazilian gave no resistance, allowing Alonso to easily sail past. The presiding media instantly recognized Ferrari had made the conclusion that a coded message hid the team’s true intention, and the way it was carried out left a sour taste in many people’s mouths. Alonso went on to win the race, marking Ferrari’s 20th victory in Germany. Massa finished in 2nd place and made it a Ferrari 1-2, having narrowly fended off Vettel.
Smedley apologized after having to relay the transmission to Massa, who is also a good friend of his. Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner said the in reaction to the incident: “That was the most blatant team order ever.”
Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali was quick to defend the decision to allow Alonso to finish ahead, discussing it on air with BBC F1’s Eddie Jordan, who saw through Ferrari’s transparent efforts at issuing team orders. The pair agreed to disagree during their somewhat heated exchange. Schumacher said, “Despite Felipe being a good friend of mine, when you look at the championship, Massa is way behind Alonso and Ferrari felt Alonso needed to win the championship.”
Many did not agree with Ferrari’s decision, since there remained the possibility that Massa could actually usurp his teammate with nine races left in the season, and that the Brazilian would not have to depend on any technical problems that his Spanish teammate may or may not suffer.
But even before the final decision was made by the World Motor Sport Council shortly after the race, having summoned Ferrari before them, the media, fans and paddock were not pleased with the outcome. The backlash was already in full force, with parallels being made with the Schumacher/ Barrichello incident in 2002.
Today team orders are no longer illegal. But the drivers are the ones that make that final choice on whether they do or do not obey them. Remember “Multi 21”? There ends the lesson…
Image credits: autoblog.com and guardian.co.uk