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Alonso Wins in Controversial Hockenheim Finish, and Ferrari Fined $100,000 for Team Orders

Fernando Alonso on the podium

In a controversial finish, Ferrari came home first and second in today’s race at Hockenheim, with Fernando Alonso taking winner’s honors, and Felipe Massa taking points as runner up.  But it wasn’t exactly a happy ending, as evinced by the rather dour faces in the Ferrari garage at race’s end.

Even the normally jubilant Alonso, who has been known to dance jigs and strike poses in parc ferme after scoring victories, was rather subdued in today’s post race press conference.  Both Alonso and Massa were peppered with questions regarding the late race maneuver which saw the two drivers exchange places.  On lap 47, Massa’s race engineer, Rob Smedley, told Massa over the radio, “Fernando is faster than you.”  He asked Massa to confirm that he understood the implication of that remark.  Massa was silent.

But on the next lap, Massa lifted after the hairpin, letting Alonso pass him without a fight.  Massa, clearly unhappy about the order he was being given, had made it as obvious as he could that the ending race order was being dictated by team management.  The irony here, which must have made the event all the more painful to Massa, was that, in a season in which he’s been consistently outclassed by his new team mate, this was a race in which he’d done everything right, and was obviously on course to take his first win of the season.

The scene was very reminiscent of the Austrian Grand Prix, of 2002, in which Ross Brawn, then the technical driector at Ferrari, radioed another Brazilian driver, Rubens Barrichello, and instructed him to move over for one Michael Schumacher, who went on to take the win.  Barrichello, always a sour grapes specialist, complied with the directive in the most obvious way, by suddenly slowing in front of the main grandstands.  The resulting hue and cry which arose led to the FIA’s ban of team orders, which continues to this day.

In consideration of that ban, apparently Ferrari chose to exploit an apparent loophole which allows the team to ask one driver to move over for another if the leading driver is considerably slower than the following driver.  This was clearly Alonso’s contention, judging from his in-car banter with the pits, but the results didn’t exactly bear that out.  He was able to open a four second gap over Massa over the next 20 laps, which isn’t exactly representative of a huge pace differential.  And even at that, it’s fair to assume that once Massa knew he wouldn’t be allowed to fight for the win, he simply decided to cruise home in second, running just quickly enough to stay ahead of Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel, who was closing up behind him.

Other than the scrum off the grid, which saw Sebastian Vettel drop back two slots from pole in an ham-fisted attempt to block Alonso, the Alonso-Massa pass was the most significant overtaking maneuver of the race, and the obvious irony was that it was staged.

However, Ferrari might have outsmarted themselves.  The FIA have levied a $100,000 fine against the team, which the Scuderia have announced they will not contest.  Not only was the ban on team orders referenced in the offical FIA statement on the matter, but so was a the more general provision which prohibits “bringing the sport into disrepute,” a charge which, once issued, is virtually impossible to appeal.

If the matter ended with the fine, Ferrari would be happy enough to pay the extra $100,000 for the win.  One can almost hear Luca di Montezemolo and Stefano Domenicali saying in a agreement with one another, “Cheap at the price!”

But unfortunately for the Scuderia, the FIA statement also said, “The case will also be referred to the FIA World Motorsport Council for further consideration.”  The implication is obvious.  The team could be stripped of today’s results.

Personally, I think the ban on team orders is absurd.  There are scores of ways in which a team can favor one driver over another, all of which are legal. The recent uproar at Red Bull over the new front wing that was given to team Golden Boy Sebastian Vettel, rather than to team veteran Mark Webber, is a case in point.  But to forbid teams from using team orders as part of their overall strategy is contrary to the very nature of Formula 1.

One also has to wonder, however, how much of this situation can be attributed to Fernando Alonso.  Alonso is a natural political in-fighter, who will always try to shift the teams focus towards him.  He ruled the roost at Rennault during both of his stints there, and he tried to pull the same stunt at McLaren in 2007. Conventional wisdom says that he was shocked that Lewis Hamilton was so good in his rookie year in F1, and wasn’t up to that level of competition from a team mate.

Perhaps.  But more to the point, I think he was incensed when he discovered that McLaren wasn’t willing to make him team leader based on his two previous years as world champion.  McLaren pay plenty of lip service to treating their drivers with complete parity.  Fair enough.  It was also true, of course, that Lewis Hamilton had been nurtured by the team for a decade during his rise thhrough various feeder series, and it was highly unlikely that Ron Dennis would be willing to let Hamilton play second fiddle to the preening Alonso.  Result: Alonso, exit stage left.

Alonso was apparently somewhat chastened by the experience, but he still has the same inclination to take control of a team, much as many other great champions have had, including Alain Prost, Ayrton Sennna and Michael Schumacher.  On this race day, however, his Machiavellian impulse seems to have backfired.

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