Nostalgia: Austria sees red as Ferrari pull the switch
For many years, a stigma has been attached to the idea of team orders in Formula One. Some see it as the devaluing of a race victory, making one driver hand it to someone less deserving, while others accept that is a necessary evil when a team has a championship to challenge for. Few races have ignited this particular debate quite like the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix.
Many associated the A1 Ring with its picturesque setting but Michael Schumacher had a very different impression after five previous visits to the place. This was his bogey circuit. From stop/go penalties to front wing changes, from being taken out at the start to not even racing at all one year, the A1 Ring didn’t hold many good memories for Michael and remained the only venue on the 2002 venue that he hadn’t won at.
His sixth attempt at breaking that particular duck didn’t start well either with Rubens Barrichello enjoying a clear edge over him in qualifying, taking a comfortable pole position. Michael was sixth tenths shy in third, splitting the Williams of his brother Ralf and Juan Pablo Montoya, and suffered an ignominious spin in his futile attempts to match his teammate.
The signs had been there in previous races with Michael relying on a banzai last run in qualifying to deny Rubens pole in San Marino and Spain and as the race got underway, the Brazilian continued to look the class of the field. Michael did at least leapfrog his brother for second but despite the clear air, he couldn’t match the pace of the sister car up ahead.
The dominance of the scarlet cars was simply astonishing with the leading duo pulling out two seconds per lap on the BMW Williams, suggesting an aggressive strategy was in play. A two-stop strategy looked the best bet and when Olivier Panis’ B.A.R Honda blew up on the home straight on lap 23, locking its rear wheels and spinning to a halt in the middle of the race track, Ross Brawn’s hand was forced. Barrichello was brought straight in once the safety car had been deployed with Schumacher forced to queue up, opening the door for Ralf to snatch second.
Michael’s strategy looked to have been compromised with his brother’s one-stopping Williams now running ahead of him but another dramatic development at the restart changed things once again. Approaching turn two, Nick Heidfeld’s Sauber lost control with an apparent suspension problem and span dangerously across the grass, scrubbing off no speed whatsoever. Fourth placed Montoya was missed by a matter of millimetres but the Jordan of Takuma Sato, who he had been trying to lap, was right in the firing line, taking an enormous side-on impact.
The damage was substantial to the right sidepod of the EJ12 and concern immediately grew over the situation of the Japanese rookie as the ambulance and medical car arrived at the scene but after a nervous wait for news, Sato was declared ok. Heidfeld had suffered a hefty impact himself and needed to be carried away from his machine but the German also escaped without injury.
A second safety car period looked to have played into the hands of the one-stoppers with many taking the opportunity to fuel up to the finish but Williams opted against an early stop. Subsequently, when racing resumed on lap 36, Ralf remained in second ahead of his brother with Montoya keeping a watching brief in fourth. Michael’s frustration lasted a further eleven laps before Williams finally called their lead man in, by which time Rubens had opened up a 3.7 second advantage, and any hope the world champion had of beating his teammate fair and square had disappeared. The race had taken a disappointing turn for his brother too with Montoya running four laps longer in his opening stint and stealing third from Ralf.
The second round of pit stops came and went with Ferrari turning both cars around in a shade over six seconds, comfortably maintaining track position over the Williams pair, and the stage seemed to be set for Rubens’ second career victory. All that could deny him now was unreliability, something he hadn’t been immune to in the first five races, or a call from upstairs at Ferrari.
Rewind twelve months to 2001 and the Scuderia had a similar conundrum with Michael running third behind Barrichello and title rival David Coulthard after an early skirmish with Juan Pablo Montoya. At the time, Schumacher only had an eight point lead to protect and Ferrari understandably stepped in to switch their cars, much to Rubens’ annoyance. Few saw that as a problem this time around though with Schumacher having dominated the first five races of the season, winning four, and carrying a 21 point lead with him to Austria.
Setting fastest laps as he did so, Schumacher ate into the lead his teammate had built up but surely the scarlet cars were gearing up for their customary formation finish? The sight of Jean Todt sliding a note across the Ferrari pitwall to Ross Brawn did little to calm any nerves, nor did the ever-shrinking gap between cars one and two and as they headed for home out of the last corner on lap 71, the worst fears of Formula One fans across the world were realised. Twelve months earlier, Rubens was reticent to the idea of moving over and was visibly upset in parc ferme afterwards but with the ink still wet on his new Ferrari contract, he knew what he had to do. With a matter of metres to go before the finish line, he eased off the throttle and handed victory to Schumacher.
Ross Brawn did his best to justify the decision afterwards, claiming that the timing of the switch ensured “that everyone could see this was Rubens’ race and that he handed victory to Michael, simply for the points involved” while Schumacher added that if the team would “look stupid” if they lost the drivers’ championship because of a failure to switch their cars. The overriding feeling amongst the public though, particularly those in attendance who booed and whistled at the outcome, was that Formula One had been made to look stupid with Schumacher’s gesture to hand the winner’s trophy to Barrichello on the podium doing little to help the situation. The team were called in front of the World Motorsport Council and fined $1million, not for their last lap antics, but for a failure to follow the podium procedure although team orders were banned for 2003.
Brawn did make a valid point after the controversy of Austria, saying that “Formula One is a team sport” and he is right. Despite their unpopularity, team orders do have a place in the sport but it should be argued that there is a time and a place. With a totally dominant car and the championship in the palm of their hands, this wasn’t the time and fifty metres from the finish line is certainly not the place. The public made their point loud and clear but as Ferrari would prove again in years to come, they weren’t afraid of risking their wrath.
(Photo Credit: Ferrari, Honda Racing & Reuters)