Modern Times

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I’ve had a minor deluge of letters and e-mails from readers wanting to know what I thought of Ferrari’s tactics at the end of the Austrian Grand Prix, when Rubens Barrichello was forced to cede victory to Michael Schumacher. As luck would have it, last month’s Modern Times had to go to press just before the Spielberg drama. By now, because things move pretty fast in Formula One, it all seems rather a long time ago. However, my thoughts are these:

First, motor racing has always been a team sport — at international level at least, when works teams make up the bulk of the field. This is as true of F1 as it is of Le Mans, or world rallying. There has never been an FIA regulation that forbids a team manager to slow one driver to favour another: so Ferrari were operating within the rules in Austria. Indeed, team tactics, and team orders, are older than the world championship itself.

However, we have to accept that F1 has become —for better or worse — a global television parlour game which, for the good of its commercial health, must take account of the expectations of its audience. When couch potatoes watch football, they are cheering on the team of their choice. But when they watch F1, they follow personalities, rather than teams. They may love Juan Pablo and hate Ralf— or hate Michael and love Rubens. Either way, most of them care little for Williams or Ferrari. So, from their vantage point on the sofa, they find it incomprehensible that a driver who has done the job that Barrichello did in Austria should have to move aside far the man he has beaten in a straight fight.

As Ross Brawn pointed out after Austria, world championships have been lost by much less than the four extra points that Ferrari’s team orders gifted to Schumacher. The way he sees it, they have a job to do, which unfortunately is less about winning races and more about winning titles. They will do anything and everything that the rules allow to get that (very highly paid) job done.

Indeed, Ross: so your team’s real crime was in the window-dressing. We all know that sort of thing goes on in F1. But more unobtrusive ways are usually employed to handicap one driver in favour of his team-mate. Rigging the result of the race so obviously, so early in the season and with Schumacher enjoying so comfortable a points lead, was extremely foolish.

Yet neither Ross Brawn nor Jean Todt are, by any stretch of the imagination, fools. I can’t believe they would be so tactless as to want to play out their scheme in front of a watching world, just as the chequered flag was unfurled. I will never get anyone to confirm it, but I’d hazard a guess that Rubens may have been the guilty party in that.

Remember the Australian Grand Prix in 1998, when David Coulthard was ordered by Ron Dennis to move aside and allow Mika Häkkinen to win? DC was very unhappy about it: allegedly Ron had to resort to threats over the radio to get him to comply. So, as he felt the victory was rightly his, David made sure everyone knew what was going on. Rather than easing his pace by half a second a lap and giving Mika a bit of room round the back, he did as he was told by slowing abruptly in front of the pits and the crowded start-finish grandstands.

Days before the Austrian Grand Prix, Barrichello had just signed his nice new two-year contract with Ferrari, so he presumably felt secure enough to risk the wrath of Todt and make his point. He’d have been told some time before to move aside for Schumacher, but felt sufficiently miffed about it to decide he wasn’t going to let his team leader past until he’d demonstrated to the world who was the deserving victor — so he did it right on the line. And who can blame him?

Schumacher, of course, won not only the race but also the Oscar for Best Male Actor. It was hardly a surprise to him that Barrichello was asked to move aside: no doubt he had been on the radio having a quiet chat with the pit about it It was only when he took off his crash helmet and heard the jeers and boos of the crowd that he realised he had a serious public relations drama on his hands — hence his hypocritical statements in the post-race interviews, implying (respectful) criticism of Ferrari’s tactics. And hence his silly behaviour on the podium, which resulted in a somewhat bewildered Brazilian standing on the top step while the German national anthem was played. These actions merely increased everyone’s realisation that they’d been watching not a race, but a cynical demonstration.

And it’s that behaviour which may prove Schumacher’s undoing when Ferrari are called before the FIA on June 26. If Max Mosley can’t punish Ferrari for bringing the sport into disrepute, he can at least punish Schumacher for not following correct podium procedure — a serious offence in Mosley’s crisply ordered world.

Meanwhile, added to his problems of the galloping march of technology and costs in Formula One, Max is surely now going to have to dream up a way of legislating against the use of team orders. Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the audience won’t stand for a repeat of Austria 2002 — and the audience is always right.

In the world of team orders, sometimes best laid plans gang agley. In the 1938 German Grand Prix, with Nazi grandees in the VIP seats, it was required that a German should win the race. Manfred von Brauchitsch duly took pole for Mercedes and, after Lang and Caracciola had problems, was soon in the lead, pursued by his English team-mate Dick Seaman. During his first stop, von Brauchitsch complained to team manager Alfred Neubauer that Seaman was pressing him too hard, and when Seaman came in, Neubauer pleaded, “For my sake, Dick, leave von Brauchitsch alone today.” But von Brauchitsch’s car caught fire during its second stop, and Seaman won — much to the fury of Korpsfuhrer Adolf Huhnlein, who oversaw the Third Reich’s support of the Mercedes and Auto Union teams.

Everyone knows that Peter Collins willingly handed over his Ferrari to team-mate Fangio in the 1956 Italian Grand Prix, helping the Old Man to clinch the fourth of his five world titles. But it’s usually forgotten that Luigi Musso was meant to give up his car to Fangio when he came in for fresh tyres a few laps earlier. Musso refused to get out of the car, staring stonily ahead while Fangio hovered alongside, and rowed back into the race. He was leading his home grand prix three laps from the end when his steeling broke.

There have been other cases of drivers disobeying orders. Renault wanted Rene Arnoux to let Alain Prost win the 1982 French Grand Prix, but Rene decided otherwise.

In recent times, of course, Ferrari have made frequent use of team orders. At Hockenheim in 1999 Mika Salo, who was standing in for the injured Schumacher, would have scored the only F1 victory of his career had he not had to let Eddie Irvine take the win. An on-form Irvine, leading at Suzuka in 1997, had to move aside for Michael — and dropped to third as a result. And in Malaysia in 1999, there was the rare situation of Schumacher, returning from his injuries, moving aside for Irvine, who was still in the running for the title.

In all of this nonsense, the culprit, as I’ve said before, is the obsession with the world championship, rather than with the Grands Prix themselves. I pine for the days when what mattered was the race, and the winning of it — around the streets of Monte Carlo, in the dusty, bumpy heat of Monza, in the rain at Spa or Berne. That’s why I was so delighted by Monaco this year. It will have no effect on the outcome of the world championship, for after just eight rounds, Schumacher has 70 points, almost three times that of his closest rival. But I could forget about the championship that day, and concentrate on the race, and on one of the finest victories in Coulthard’s career. Under the strongest of pressure and on this most unforgiving of circuits, he made not the tiniest mistake, from his perfect start to his restrained acknowledgement of the chequered flag.

But nowadays, for most people — and indeed for most teams — it seems individual races have little glory of their own. They are merely laps on the way to the totting-up of points at the end of the season. This is why team tactics happen, producing the sort of embarrassment we saw in Austria: and why a driver is often satisfied with second place, to be sure of six wretched points, rather than going all-out for victory.

And that’s not motor racing. It’s just arithmetic.

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