> Silence No More: The Ferrari Incident

Silence No More: The Ferrari Incident

Posted on Tuesday, July 27, 2010 | No Comments

I can contain my silence no more; prepare for a well thought out blog post on the issue of Ferrari team orders in the German Grand Prix.

As the whole world seems to know, Ferrari issued coded team orders to race leader Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso pass and claim the race victory, leaving Felipe finishing second and outrage within the sport and Ferrari being fined $100,000 and the issue being referred to the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC) for further review.

Whilst that’s the case in a nutshell, the data seems to paint a very different story of the race. At the start of the race, Massa from 3rd on the grid managed to pass both Vettel (who was on pole) and his team mate Alonso (start from 2nd), into the lead. The two Ferrari’s followed each other for much of the opening stint of the race without much of a gap emerging, the first and only pit stops occurred and still the two Ferrari’s remained in formation.

However, Alonso was clearly faster than the race leader and wanted past. A race between the Ferraris’s then ensued for a few laps as Alonso searched for a way past – having failing to do so, he came on the radio to the team declaring “This is ridiculous”. The Ferrari team, no doubt looked at the data and discussed, but decided not to issue any coded messages to their drivers to let Alonso past; in other words, the two drivers were free to race.

Two things then happened; Alonso slowed down and Massa sped up. The BBC commentators speculated that Alonso had been forced into a ‘fuel saving mode’ in order to ensure he had enough reach the end of the race (a standard practice in most F1 teams). Massa was now ahead of Alonso by a clear 5 seconds.

The next phase of the race then unfolded. Alonso started to catch the race leader, reeling him in at a vast rate of knots – indicating that Alonso had completed his fuel saving phase and was clearly faster (a fact backed up by the driver setting a number of fastest laps).

Alonso soon found himself 0.6secs behind the race leader and in the ‘dirty air zone’ of the leading car. Sensing that the time had come, Vettel in third place and quite some time behind both Ferraris then started to chip away at the lead of the two leading cars – this was clear to the Ferrari team and anyone else following along with the lap time data.

Massa had not yet gone through his ‘fuel saving phase’ and if he had to go through this stage he would have held Alonso up even further. Ferrari, desperate for a result, couldn’t risk it and the team (Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer), clearly sent a coded message to Massa; “Fernando is faster than you”. A lap later and with 19 laps of the race remaining, Massa let Alonso pass him. Rob back on the radio said to Massa, “Good lad, stick with him. Sorry”.

The final phase of the race then unfolded; Alonso went on to set fastest lap after fastest lap until the end of the race, where Massa suddenly slowed significantly - his fuel saving phase (?), which put him 5 seconds behind Alonso at the end of the race (the same amount of time Alonso had lost and regained during his fuel saving).

The discussion after the race was whether Ferrari had issued team orders that changed the outcome of the race. Ferrari denied “team orders” were given, for everyone else it was a clear cut instruction or ‘coded message’ – a system that has been used by every team in the pit lane since the introduction of the “no team orders” rule issued in 2003 (the Internet forums are littered with prime examples of this from McLaren and Red Bull and others).

Why did Ferrari feel the need to issue a coded message at all? The answer is found at the end of the race. Massa finished 5 seconds behind Alonso, which accounts for his fuel saving phase but Vettel eventually finished 0.9 behind Massa, demonstrating that the Red Bull car towards the end of the race had some decent pace. Now, just for a moment, lets speculate that Massa hadn’t let Alonso past holding him up 0.6secs behind him and assuming that Massa still had to go through his fuel saving phase or didn’t have any more pace to pull away from Alonso (which I think is a fair assumption, given that Alonso set fastest lap after fastest lap at the end of the race). This would have meant Vettel would have been 0.3secs behind Alonso if he hadn’t managed to pass the lead Ferrari.

0.3 seconds would have given Vettel a decent shot at an overtaking opportunity to pass Alonso whilst he was held up by Massa. If Vettel had passed Alonso in this scenario, he would have then been 0.6secs behind Massa – again prime overtaking opportunity. I think it’s also a fair assumption that Vettel would have been more aggressive at trying an overtake than Alonso racing his team mate (think two Red Bull cars coming together in Turkey).

Now there are a lot of ifs, buts, could haves in that scenario and anything could have happened, however Ferrari like every other team have full knowledge of their strategy (their fuel saving needs), and they also have data from their simulations on how soon Vettel would have been able to have caught their two cars and attempted an overtake.

Put yourself in the position of Stefano Domenicali, Ferrari Team Principal, for a moment and that scenario has been laid out in front of you; as team principal, would you have guaranteed your team’s 1-2 finish or would you have gambled that Vettel wouldn’t have caught and potentially passed the guy in second who is clearly faster than the leader? Also bearing in mind the points is equal to prize money and after not achieving the results the Tifosi and media are growing impatient? I know that I would have done everything to guarantee the best result for the team and I’m sure you would have too.

Three people were very outspoken after the race of Ferrari’s use of ‘coded messages’ or ‘team orders’; those were Christian Horner (Team Principal of Red Bull), Eddie Jordan (former Team Owner of Jordan Grand Prix), and Martin Whitmarsh (Team Principal of McLaren).

Lets quickly review; Martin Whitmarsh/McLaren at the Turkish Grand Prix issued orders to Jenson Button to refrain from racing race leader Lewis Hamilton and to go into “fuel saving mode”, after Jenson had attempted to overtake Hamilton – ‘coded team order messages’ or genuine? Speculation and discussion about the incident was certainly present at the next grand prix.

Eddie Jordan famously issued team orders to Ralf Schumacher - running in second place behind team mate and race leader Damon Hill, at the Belgian GP in 1998 - informing him not to attempt to overtake the leader; clear team orders. Jordan’s stance on the BBC F1 Forum was that he made that decision before the “no team orders” rule was introduced into Formula 1 and that no big deal should be made of it. Poppy-cock! He made the decision and issued the order to ensure that the result was the best result for his team.

Finally Christian Horner, the most outspoken and the man who has the most to gain by Ferrari being excluded from the results (Vettel promoted to race winner). However, this is the man who last week ordered his team to remove a new front wing from Mark Webber’s car and gave it to Vettel. It may not have been ‘on track’ team orders but it was team orders all the same and it certainly favoured one driver over another.

Could the whole thing have been avoided by Ferrari? Yes, if Massa hadn’t moved over so dramatically/obviously perhaps the fans could have accepted it a bit more, however Felipe wanted to make a point that the ‘coded message’ had been sent to him and that he was a team player for Ferrari. Would it have really mattered how Massa let Alonso past? No, of course not – the team had issued the order after giving him a chance to make the race victory his earlier in the race, he either didn’t/couldn’t make it his by pulling out a big enough gap to Alonso or Alonso was just too quick for him on this particular day; Fernando would have passed regardless.

How will the FIA respond? The FIA are undoubtedly in a very difficult position here, especially with former Ferrari Team Principal Jean Todt at the helm. Todt famously issued the team order for Rubens Barrichello to move over and let Michael Schumacher pass him at the Austrian GP in 2002, the incident that prompted the “No team orders” rule to start with.

If the FIA rule in favour of Ferrari, there will undoubtedly be accusations of favouritism towards Ferrari and if they rule against, it may compromise Todt’s decision in 2002 to issue similar team orders and a series of other ‘coded messages’ that are on-record from previous races by all other teams may need to be full examined and acted upon in accordance with this ruling (Ferrari would undoubtedly call for this action in this case). Either way it puts the FIA and its President in a precarious position. The way out would be for the WMSC to cancel the meeting with Ferrari and either scrap or re-word the team order rule as quickly as possible.

Final thoughts: Team orders in one way or another have been in Formula 1 since the very beginning and have been present even after the “no team orders” rule was brought into the sport in 2003. The fans may not always like it, but this sport is also a business with some big financial incentives to win and do well. The sport is also a team sport, if it wasn’t then each team would only be allowed to race a single car. Every team in the pit lane had issued some sort of orders either during the race or prior to the race starting, using pre-race agreements or pre-agreed coded messages (some of these may or may not be as clear as Ferrari’s “Fernando is faster than you, please confirm you understand this message?” statement, but they do exist).

Team orders can’t be removed from the sport because they can’t be policed. It’s the FIA’s word against the teams and it matters not what context the words were spoken, context can be deciphered in many ways, unless fully admitted to (Ferrari were never going to admit to breaking the rules regardless of whether the ‘coded message’ was a team order or not).

If I were Ferrari Team Principal, I’d have made the exact same call and handled the situation in exactly the same way. Anyone who says they would have handled it differently isn’t thinking about it from the perspective of the team and securing the best possible result for that team. It matters not that it was Ferrari, the FIA/media/fans could have made this much fuss over team orders and coded messages for just about any team.

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