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Jean Todt Ambiguous on Team Orders Ban

FIA president Jean Todt with wife Michelle

At the German Grand Prix this year, Ferrari stirred a controversy by blatantly employing team orders, allowing Fernando Alonso to finish ahead of team mate Felipe Massa.  It wasn’t the first time that Ferrari had scored a a controversial victory in this way. You’ll recall that the Scuderia incurred the wrath of the crowd at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, by ordering Rubens Barrichello to move aside for Michael Schumacher. Ironically, it was because of that very race that the rule banning team orders was enacted for the first time in more than 50 years of the sport.

Another irony: the current president of the FIA, Jean Todt, was team director of Ferrari in 2002, at the time of the Schumi-Rubinho fiasco.  Anyone who watched that race will recall that Barrichello let Schumacher pass in the most obvious way possible, by slowing dramatically in front of the main grandstands.  In the world of F1, team orders are common, but executing them in the Barrichello manner is virtually unheard of.

Jean Todt still harbors residual rancor towards Barrichello over the matter.  “I shouldn’t have needed to tell him anything,” Todt recently told La Stampa. “We had agreed earlier, ‘If you’re ahead after the pitstop, you must let Schumacher through with no fuss.’  He agreed. Besides, a driver is paid to accept certain decisions. Instead, he would stay ahead. I called him 50 times and I repeated it clearly. He moved over at the last turn, the public whistled, Schumi gave him the top spot at the podium ceremony, and Ferrari was fined for infringing the protocol: 500,000 dollars.”

Further irony: now, as president of the FIA, Todt will oversee a review of the team orders ban, in the wake of the German Grand Prix brouhaha this year.  Todt has said that he has no objection to team orders in principle (naturally), and it’s been assumed that he might push for a repeal of the ban.  Todt himself has admitted that since the ban teams have frequently escaped sanction over the ban by employing “soft” orders, by using coded directives such as “save fuel” or “keep revs low.”  Similar effects have been attained through employing various pit strategies, including delaying number two drivers with slightly longer pit stops.

As these tactics have been commonplace, one might think that Todt would push for bringing team orders back into the open.  But now it seems that he might have the exact opposite in mind.  Rather than lifting the ban, it seems he want to make it more stringently regulated.  “It will be controlled by regulations,” Todt said. “F1 is a team sport, every team will take responsibility for their own behaviour. Lies, or coded messages such as ‘save fuel’, will not be tolerated….I’ve asked the Sporting Working Group for a proposal, I hope it will come by 9 December, in time for the world council in Monte Carlo.”

Is this really the right direction for Formula 1?  Will it get tot he point where virtually every directive given to a driver by an engineer or team principle will fall under scrutiny for possibly being anti-competitive?  We’ve already seen such a trend taken to an extreme this year when a local public prosecutor in Sao Paulo threatened to file charges of fraud against Felipe Massa if it was thought that the Brazilian driver had in any way manipulated the race result by lagging behind team mate Fernando Alonso.  Do we really want lawyers making the final pronouncements on race results?

Perhaps Jean Todt will come to his senses and and solve the problem by pushing the FIA to chuck the ban altogether.  I’m not entirely optimistic, however.  Regulations are like taxes: once they’ve been established, they’re nearly impossible to get rid of.

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