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Formula One Is for Grown-Ups, I Hear

Lately I’ve been working on one godawful long post about team orders — because, clearly, I haven’t bleated and moaned nearly enough about that subject. That particular post, though, has become dense and unfocused — a murky, fetid swamp I’m slogging through merely in the interest of getting to the other side. Now, though. . . it’s just too much.  I’ve had it.  I think I’m just going to look for a rock in the middle of the swamp and sit down for a while.  Or possibly teleport myself elsewhere.

I think part of my problem with the team orders controversy is that there are three slightly different issues being debated simultaneously, and I have trouble getting past the first, most basic one:

  1. The question of whether: should team orders be used in F1 at all? In other words, this is the basic question of whether a team should be able to move their own drivers around on the track like chess pieces, regardless of whether one is quicker than the other.
  2. The question of how: under the assumption that team orders are to exist in F1, how should they be executed? Should teams be open about it, making it very obvious when a race result is being manipulated? Or should they employ subterfuge, presenting the fans with the illusion that an actual race has taken place?
  3. The question of when: under the assumption that team orders are to exist in F1, when should they be executed? Should it be legal to use them during the entire season, from start to finish, whenever the team decides they would feel more comfortable having one driver receive more points than the other? Or should there be a rule regarding at what point during the season the use of team orders becomes acceptable? Or, rather than (or perhaps in addition to) having the time element be the deciding factor, should it be the points disparity between the two drivers, or perhaps the points disparity between a favored driver and his nearest rival in the championship?

I think it’s probably pretty clear, simply judging from the way in which I worded the above questions, where my sympathies lie. My sympathies lie with those who would let drivers race, no matter what the circumstances. In the opinion of some, that means I have no business being a fan of F1, and I do realize they might be right. F1 really might not be the sport for me in the long run. In the November issue of Motor Sport, Nigel Roebuck, after mocking the “elements of Fleet Street” and their ranting about the wishes of the fans being ignored, sneered, “Formula 1 is . . . for grown-ups.” A pithy insult, sure — but one I’ve been chewing on and trying to interpret more precisely ever since I first read it. I suppose he might be talking more about naïveté than about a lack of maturity.

2002 Austrian Grand Prix. (Image in the public domain.)

In my execrable naïveté, what I keep wondering is, if team orders are so integral a part of the grown-up world of F1, why were they banned in the first place? So in the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, Rubens Barrichello was ordered to move aside and allow Michael Schumacher to win the race.  At the time, this was perfectly legal.  Why did it lead to a ban? Was that action taken by the FIA just an exercise in stupidity — a deplorable step pandering to ignorant and overly excitable fans naively wanting the driver who wins the race to be the . . . driver who wins the race?

And now, at a time when the ban is about to be lifted, what, if anything, has changed from the fans’ perspective?

Many argue that it was the timing that made the use of team orders in Hockenheim so indefensible. Too early in the season, not enough of a points disparity between Alonso and Massa. However, say it happened later in the season, and Alonso had been farther ahead in the points: is the sight of Felipe Massa, leading the race, moving over to allow Fernando Alonso to cruise past him for the win something you think fans are going to appreciate seeing, even under those different circumstances?

Well, for many fans, this scenario might be perfectly acceptable. It has been suggested to me, though, that American fans in particular will object to it no matter what the circumstances.  Some might say that has to do with our self-centered, capitalistic national character, but I like to think of it as being more about how we view sports — what we as American sports fans expect from competitors in general. We value actual competition above almost everything, I think — in sports and, yes, okay (probably to our detriment, at times), in other areas as well. The manipulation of race results to give a slight mathematical advantage to one teammate over another that may or may not pay off down the line isn’t going to sit well with most people I know, who will be too preoccupied with having been deprived of an actual competition to care much about anything else.

The reactions of the fans this year, though, and what I’ve heard about the reactions of fans in 2002 show that this sort of thing doesn’t sit well with many people in general, no matter what country they’re from. In 2002, Jonathan Legard described Ferrari fans — Ferrari fans! — burning their flags and vowing never to watch another grand prix. It’s hard to imagine this type of visceral reaction being tempered by a reasoned consideration of relative point totals. Is this an issue we, as fans, are all just going to have be adequately schooled about? Or is the opinion of fans and the occasional flag burning a miniscule consideration in the face of sixty-odd years of Formula One history?

In just a few days, the ban on team orders will be re-evaluated by the FIA.  Jean Todt seems to advocate a return to the good old days, when a team order could be issued openly and without subterfuge.  Which, of course, puts us back at square one — i.e., 2002, when a team order was given in Austria and no subterfuge was employed in doing so.  How will the fans react the next time this happens?  Part of me is very curious to find out, and yet another, larger part hopes I don’t have to witness a farce like that anytime soon.

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