Doug Nye: The disgraceful F1 day Ferrari ordered Barrichello to let Schumacher win

"2002 Austrian GP is the one result that has come close to destroying my interest in F1 racing"

May I make a confession? I increasingly fear I’m perhaps just a bit ‘slow on the uptake’. Or otherwise is it common to experience a sudden jolting realisation of quite how much time has abruptly passed since one witnessed some particularly memorable incident?

I remember such a wake-up call in spring last year when I realised that May 12, 2022 actually marked the 20th anniversary of the one race result which – more than any other – has ever come close to destroying my lifelong interest in front-line Formula 1 racing. Do you recall it too?

It was the 2002 Austrian GP, run at the A1-Ring, what I still think of as the Österreichring neutered. That’s right, another sign of age. That race was run quite early in the year, as only round 6 of the 17 F1 World Championship-qualifying races. There in the Styrian hills, Rubens Barrichello of Ferrari had driven brilliantly all weekend. He had qualified on pole, followed in the timing sheet by the Schumacher brothers – but this time Ralf in the Williams-BMW was second, quicker than Michael – Barrichello’s team-leader – in the other Ferrari F2002. Barrichello had led into the first corner and maintained his advantage through two safety car periods, a red flag after the really nasty-looking collision which sent both Takuma Sato and Nick Heidfeld to hospital – and a rolling restart. Second pit stops then featured race-leader Rubens gifting the lead to Michael Schumacher for one lap, then repassing into first place next time round as the reigning World Champion made his routine stop.

Barrichello was left with a healthy (and clearly defendable) 4.1-second lead. All seemed set for the popular and engaging Brazilian to take a welcome – indeed, tedium-breaking – win after team-leader Michael’s victories in four of the five preceding 2002 rounds, the odd one out having fallen to brother Ralf’s Williams in Malaysia, remember?

But what then followed was surely one of the most disgracefully tone-deaf, bone-headed, and shockingly dispiriting – not to mention calculatingly callous – team director interferences in the entire then 97-year history of pure-blooded Grand Prix racing…

“This is one of the occasions we will have to ask you to move over”

With some eight or nine laps remaining of the scheduled 71, Ferrari’s Jean Todt pressed the transmit button on the team’s ship-to-shore radio link, advising Barrichello that “This is one of the occasions we will have to ask you to move over”. Even with two thirds of the season remaining, in Todt’s chillingly calculating brain there was – he would later claim – ample opportunity for unreliability or incident to rob his World Champion of yet another title by year’s end. Yet Michael at that stage led that Championship by fully 21 points from Juan Pablo Montoya, by 24 from his brother Ralf – and was a yawning 38 points ahead of team-mate Rubens Barrichello, then sixth in the table overall.

Hardly surprising then that the Brazilian initially resisted the team order. Todt reputedly told him compliance was necessary “to protect Ferrari interests”. And Rubens – with understandable theatricality – only finally slowed out of the final corner, to allow his team leader to take the chequered flag first – by a microscopic 18 one-hundredths of a second. A storm of boos and jeering instantly erupted not only from the grandstands and spectator banks, but from some in the pits and many in the press facility. I can hardly think whenever such an outraged reaction was better deserved.

And now, suddenly, 21 long years have passed since then.

Thinking on this, and again wondering at how rapidly the years pass, consider the recent background – at least here in the UK – of single-interest demonstrators interrupting front-line sporting events to advance their own agendas. Fortunately that is something else which has occurred fairly rarely in Grand Prix racing history, with one highlight (or lowlight, should I say) being that this year brings the 20th anniversary of the apparently potty Irish priest, Cornelius ‘Neil’ Horan – the presumably narcissistic kilt-wearing (well, rather frighteningly mini-skirted) jig-dancing and soon-to-be laicised (defrocked) Catholic clergyman.

‘The Grand Prix Priest’, or ‘Dancing Priest’… whatever… He who thought it was a good idea to warn against forthcoming Armageddon by running along the Hangar Straight at Silverstone during the British Grand Prix – dodging and side-stepping both towards then away from cars approaching at a minimum 150-160mph – before being toppled by a brawny – and brave – marshal, who put his own life at risk in doing so.

When asked, I have repeatedly explained that my motor racing interest has always been as much in the extraordinary people involved, even peripherally, as in the technology of the sport… the cars, drivers and the activity itself. I guess when the bug bites, it just bites deep. And when time is so jam-packed full, my goodness, it really does flash by, at Formula 1 pace – indeed.

Doug Nye is the UK’s leading motor racing historian and has been writing authoritatively about the sport since the 1960s