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The FIA Repeals Team Orders Ban for 2011

In one of the most sensible moves the FIA has made since they mandated the return of slick tires, the F1 sanctioning body has announced that the team orders ban, introduced in 2002, will be repealed for 2011.  Specifically, the announcement said that “article forbidding team orders (39.1) is deleted.”  As a fallback position, however, the official FIA statement reminded all concerned that “any actions liable to bring the sport into disrepute are dealt with under Article 151c of the International Sporting Code and any other relevant provisions.”

Article 151c is a catch-all regulation that can be applied to virtually any situation from race fixing to spitting on the tarmac.  In the context of the repeal of article 39.1, the caveat seems to imply that teams will be free to employ team orders as long as they do so in a way that doesn’t involve collusion with other teams, or is in some other way flagrantly anti-competitive.  Like many FIA regs, however, 151c is vague enough to either be totally ignored or irrationally abused.

But one shouldn’t be unduly concerned.  Article 151c has been around for ages, and for the most part it’s been used primarily to chastise mouthy drivers who have dared to publicly slag either Bernie Ecclestone or Max Mosley.

On the whole, we should be appreciative that the FIA have finally come to their senses about team orders.  It’s ironic that the ban was initially provoked by Ferrari, who ordered Rubens Barrichello to move over for Michael Schumacher at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002.  Barrichello, who always felt victimized at Ferrari (never mind that they made him rich, and put him on the map as a front rank driver), deliberately made a hash of the maneuver, and the fans were outraged.

Flash forward to 2010, and once again it was Ferrari who caused an evaluation of the rule, this time in the wake of Ferrari’s clumsy directive ordering Felipe Massa to move aside for Fernado Alonso at this year’s German Grand Prix.  Virtually everyone agreed that team orders have always been used, even since the ban, but teams have found subtle ways of doing so, either by the timing of pit stops, or the use of code phrases with drivers, such as “save fuel,” or “watch engine temp,” or anything else that might imply, “Slow down, your team mate is bloody well trying to get past you.”

Ferrari received a slap on the wrist ($100,000 fine), and the FIA said they would revisit the rule at season’s end.  New FIA president Jean Todt, who was instrumental in the 2002 incident in Austria, when he was the Scuderia team boss, publicly said that he himself believed that team orders were totally appropriate, but that they had been illegal in 2010, and that in the future the rules would be made more specific, with no grey areas.  This led some to believe that the FIA might make the ban even stricter than it had been.

But the F1 community can heave a sigh of relief.  No doubt under the influence of Jean Todt (former president Max Mosley had been a supporter of the ban), the ban has been dropped altogether.

From 1950, when the modern era of Formula 1 began, to 2002, team orders have been used regularly and judiciously, without serious detriment to the sport.  As long as the FIA mandates a team structure for the sport, it’s only right that they allow the teams to deploy their resources (including their drivers) as they see fit, for the ultimate success of the team as a whole.  It’s a system that worked well enough for the 52 years prior to the ban.  The ban was only introduced, like the revised points system that was in effect until this year, as an antidote to the overwhelming success of Ferrari during their glory years in the Schumacher-Brawn-Byrne era.  (When Schumi moved from Benetton to Ferrari, it will be remembered, he eventually brought tech chief Ross Brawn and chief designer Rory Byrne along with him.)

Of course, Ferrari’s dominance didn’t last forever.  For one thing, the key personnel (including Jean Todt) all moved on.  And these things always occur in cycles, anyway.  But the points system and the team orders ban remained in place for several years, and had the predictable backfire effect, proving to be anti-competitive in the former case, and hypocritical in the latter.

Speaking at the Bologna Motor Show, Ferrari honcho Stafano Domenicali said, “Finally, we have said goodbye to this pointless hypocrisy. For us, Formula 1 is a team sport and we have always maintained that viewpoint and it should be treated as such.”

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