8 Sept 2010 – When Are Rules Not Rules?
In the world of the FIA, when are rules not rules?
It’s not a trick question with a clever answer, a part of a game played for amusement.
The answer, of course, is: The FIA’s regulations become null and void when Ferrari is involved.
After hearing about the verdict (or rather, the lack of one) levied against Ferrari for a clear case of the use of illegal team orders influencing the outcome of the German Grand Prix in late July, that is the only conclusion someone who is not biased for (or against) Ferrari can make. On the other hand, if you are pro-Ferrari, you would be prone to celebrate what had happened at the World Motor Sports Council (as my cousin did on Facebook, saying “Score 1 for Ferrari team orders.”).
My cousin’s rhetoric, whether or not delivered tongue-in-cheek, nevertheless expresses the truth of the situation that unfolded at Hockenheim during the German Grand Prix. As the saying goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck…”
Here’s my big problem with how things went down: The WMSC basically agreed with Ferrari’s defense that it (Ferrari) did not violate the regulation (Article 39.1) prohibiting the use of team orders during a Formula One race, but still upheld the original stewards’ post-race decision that the team did violate the rule. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like the FIA contradicting itself regarding the issue. Ferrari cannot simultaneously be found guilty AND innocent of the violation it was accused of. And yet that, in essence, is what the WMSC’s decision says by agreeing with Ferrari’s defense.
If an adjudicating body (which is what the WSMC ostensibly is) is in danger of even just appearing to be anything less than conclusive regarding any matter over which it presides, then it risks losing credibility in the eyes of a critical audience. Insofar as I’m concerned, it’s very difficult to take seriously anything that the FIA does when it comes to controversies involving Ferrari. This is an opinion that takes into consideration the controversies that ensued in this year’s European and British Grands Prix, where through simple bad luck Ferrari got victimized by circumstances and had the boom lowered on them by correct application of the regulations.
It’s very difficult to accept the WSMC’s decision regarding the events in Hockenheim considering what we, the audience, saw and heard during the race broadcast. The radio communication from Fernando Alonso to the Ferrari pit was an obvious statement of his frustration with finding himself behind Felipe Massa. Ferrari’s response was to have Massa’s chief engineer (and great friend) Rob Smedley radio to Felipe that Alonso was faster than he was. The damning piece of evidence insofar as I’m concerned is Massa’s response to the radio communications. He didn’t radio back to Smedley (if he did, my broadcast didn’t air his response), but what he did on the race track was far more eloquent than anything anybody could say: Massa ceded position to Alonso at the EXIT of a hairpin.
Actions speak louder than words. Anybody who knows anything about motor racing knows that unless the car has a problem affecting its performance exiting a very slow corner, or unless the driver deliberately decides to compromise his position on the track, it’s virtually impossible for a car leading another car to get overtaken. Why? The guy in front is in complete control of the corner; he decides for anybody else following him when, where, and how much to accelerate out of the corner.
Here’s a look at how the change in position occurred (at 00:56 on the video clip):
Based solely on the letter of what was said (or, rather, what viewers heard on their television broadcasts) in the various communications between Ferrari and its two drivers at Hockenheim, it’s possible to absolve Ferrari. However, communications are never just about what is literally said; it would be naive to believe that communications exist only on a literal plane. Coded radio communications undoubtedly exist in Formula One, so that is one very easy way to circumvent the letter of the regulations. Not only that, but they also serve to obfuscate a team’s radio communications from their competitors.
I mean, listen to Rob Smedley’s transmission. Pay attention not just to what he is saying, but how he speaks:
Smedley: OK. (pause) So… (short pause) Fernando is (short pause) faster (short pause) than (short pause) you. (longer pause) Can you confirm you understood that message?
I don’t know if Massa issued a reply via a radio, but it was unnecessary. By allowing Alonso past at the exit of the slowest corner of the circuit, even though Alonso was nowhere near him on the entry of the corner, says so much more than any words could.
After Alonso assumed the lead of the race, Smedley made another call to Massa (02:18 on the video clip):
Smedley: OK, mate. Good lad. Just stick with him now. Sorry.
I think Ferrari and the FIA owe Formula One’s fans an apology. Sadly, only Rob Smedley is on record for expressing any kind of remorse (whether he said sorry to Massa for being the one to issue the coded order to cede position to Alonso, or he said sorry for not being quick enough to keep the lead, is known only to him, though I strongly suspect that he probably meant it as an apology for issuing the order) over the incident at Hockenheim.
Once again, the FIA missed out on an easy opportunity to demonstrate some integrity when Ferrari, its favorite son, was on the dock for a clearcut rules violation.