Austria '02: How Ferrari team orders controversy embarrassed F1


Fans were so outraged when Rubens Barrichello slowed within sight of the finish line to let Michael Schumacher through and win the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix that F1 introduced a ban on team orders

A1 RING - MAY 12: Race winner Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher of Germany and runner-up Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello of Brazil stand on the podium after the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix held at the A1 Ring in Spielberg, Austria on May 12, 2002. They swapped places on the podium as Barrichello led most of the race but under team orders let Schumacher overtake him on the last lap to win the race. (Photo by Tom Shaw/Getty Images)

Award podium ceremony antics after Ferrari's '02 team orders

Tom Shaw/Getty Images

Being a number two driver is a tag no Formula 1 racer wants to be associated with. Their job? To help their faster team-mate finish as high as possible, while hoovering up any additional points for the constructors’ championship. No matter the cost to their own ambitions, no matter how demoralising it could be.

When one thinks about the role, names including Eddie Irvine, Valtteri Bottas or Mark Webber come to mind. Most famous of all, however, would probably be Rubens Barrichello, Michael Schumacher’s wingman at Ferrari.

Today, marks 20 years since the infamous 2002 Austrian Grand Prix which epitomised the true meaning of being a number two driver. It was the sixth race of the season and Schumacher had got off to the near-perfect start. Four wins out of five, and almost double the points to second in the championship, he was simply too good for the rest of the grid.


Barrichello dominated in Austria


However, that weekend Barrichello had managed to get the better of him. The Brazilian claimed an excellent pole position on the Saturday, ahead of the other Schumacher, Ralf, in second with Michael starting from third.

Barrichello was then able to translate this form into race pace on Sunday. He got off the line brilliantly and his lead was unchallenged for most of the grand prix, with Michael in second after jumping his brother at the start. It goes without saying that Barrichello was the quicker Ferrari driver that weekend – the moral thing for the Scuderia to do would have been to let the better man win.

But as Simon Taylor put it in his ‘Modern Times’ column for Motor Sport twenty years ago, F1 is ultimately not an individual pursuit.

From the archive

“Motor racing has always been a team sport — at international level at least, when works teams make up the bulk of the field,” he said in the aftermath of Austria ’02. “This is as true of F1 as it is of Le Mans, or world rallying.”

Although Schumacher already had a sizeable lead in the standings, it was still early in the season and Ferrari did not want to risk anything to hinder the German’s chances of winning a fifth title at the time. With that in mind, the Scuderia imposed team orders on Barrichello, who was reluctant to obey.

At first, the Brazilian refused to come to heel. But then came the threats from Ferrari. Serious threats which would cause offence to some.

“It was eight laps of war,” Barrichello said in 2012, while recalling the incident. “It’s very rare that I lose my temper, but I was screaming on the radio. I kept going right to the end, saying I would not let him pass.

“That’s when they said something about something much broader. It was not about the contract.


Schumacher takes win after clear slowing by Barrichello


“I cannot tell you what they said, but it was a form of threat that made me think about re-thinking my life, because the great joy for me was driving.”

So, it was made clear that he only had one choice on the matter. But Barrichello didn’t want to do it in a way where Ferrari would come out of it unscathed. So, he waited. And he waited until the final corner of the last lap before slowing down with 100 yards until the finish line. Doing so enabled Schumacher to pass for victory, but Ferrari suddenly had an embarrassing PR disaster on their hands.


Reaction to the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix

Ferrari, particularly Schumacher, felt the wrath immediately. Fans were furious. What should have been a momentous day for the Italian outfit, turned into greetings of jeers and boos as soon as Schumacher’s crash helmet came off. Fans could not comprehend what had just happened. How could Ferrari make clearly the better driver over the weekend, give up the race victory to hand it on a plate to his team-mate, who had not done the job that was required of him?

It was unsportsmanlike.

At the time, fans were generally on the side of the smiling underdog Barrichello, rather than Schumacher: the pantomime villain who could not stop winning.

However, Taylor highlighted the pragmatism – rooted in history – behind the decision.

“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,” he highlighted. “Indeed, team tactics, and team orders, are older than the world championship itself.”

At the time, Barrichello remained dignified when addressing the matter.

“I’m going through a period of a very good time of my life,” he commented. “I’m becoming a better person, a better driver, so there’s no point in arguing. I think my determination will bring me a lot more wins, so that’s the way I see it, so there’s no point arguing.”

As Taylor pointed out in his column, F1 world championships have been determined by much less than the four additional points Ferrari gave to Schumacher on the day.


Barrichello attending FIA summons for incorrect podium protocol


Speaking at the time, Schumacher said, “the team is investing a lot of money for one sort of target and imaging if in the end it wouldn’t be enough by this amount of points, how stupid would we look?”

Looking back though, it’s interesting to think that despite all that happened, the only thing the FIA could punish Ferrari for was what happened at the podium ceremony. While the German national anthem was played, Schumacher gave the top step to Barrichello, a Brazilian, while both were on there during the Italian anthem for the team. Ferrari, Schumacher and Barrichello were all fined $1million for breaking the protocol.


Team orders in Formula 1 and the 2010 German Grand Prix

Following the outcry from the incident, the FIA needed to clamp down on team orders in an attempt to prevent future occurrences and they were barred from the 2003 season. But in Formula 1, teams always find a way: the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix wasn’t the first occurrence of team orders, nor has it been the last.

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In the aftermath of the ban, teams would deliver coded messages which could not be directly taken as team orders – though if one was to read between the lines, it’s clear what the true meaning of the message would be. Not that there was much reading behind the lines needed for the next team orders controversy at the 2010 German Grand Prix, with Ferrari again the culprit.

As in Austria, the team had a number one driver — Fernando Alonso — fighting for the world championship, with a team-mate doing a better job on that weekend. Felipe Massa was leading the race at the Hockenheimring until race engineer Rob Smedley gave the radio message: “Fernando is fastest than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?”

It’s unlikely the instruction was lost on a single viewer. Although there may not have been the same level of fan outrage as after the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, it did make the FIA realise one thing: despite the rule, teams would always find a loophole, so the ban was rescinded.

Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso (both Ferrari) on the podium after the 2010 German Grand Prix in Hockenheim. Photo: Grand Prix Photo

More awkward Ferrari podiums: Massa and Alonso at Hockenheim

Grand Prix Photo

Massa spoke to Motor Sport about the damaging effects of incident years later.

“You feel after this type of situation, the team asking you to let them by, that this is really bad for the confidence of the driver,” he said.

“It is [very difficult to come back from this] – the mentality, the strength you need to have in your mind, the confidence. You feel that the team is putting you on the side.”

Things weren’t better for Valtteri Bottas at the 2017 Russian Grand Prix when the Finn was ordered to let Lewis Hamilton through to aid his team-mate’s title bid, saying later that he was thinking of “quitting [F1], giving up.”

Sometimes it’ll go against a favourite driver but whether fans like it or not, team orders are part of the fabric of F1.