Joe-Pinions: Sports

8 Sept 2010 – When Are Rules Not Rules?

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 08/09/2010

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.


8 Sept 2010 – Ferrari Escape Further Sanctions

Posted in Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 08/09/2010

According to multiple sources (including, Eurosport via Yahoo!Sport UK & Ireland, and Reuters), Ferrari is set to escape further sanctions for their alleged use of illegal team orders in this year’s German Grand Prix.  The World Motor Sports Council upheld the original penalty of a $100,000 fine but apparently did not find that Ferrari was guilty of any worse or further violations of the regulations.

I will share my comments on this issue later when I have time.

28 July 2010 – GP of Germany Thoughts (Part 1)

Posted in Auto Racing, Formula 1 by txtmstrjoe on 28/07/2010

For me, there were four big things about the German GP from this past weekend:

  1. This was the first time Ferrari had won on legitimate pace since Kimi Raikkonen’s KERS-assisted win in Spa last year.
  2. Ferrari was wrong to ask Felipe Massa to move over for Fernando Alonso, for a variety of reasons.
  3. There is a brewing controversy about illegally-flexing front wings involving both Ferrari and Red Bull, but it’s an issue that hasn’t been prominent in coverage (I’ve only seen it in Autosport and in Will Gray’s commentaries on Yahoo! UK’s F1 coverage).
  4. McLaren has much work to do with its “blown diffuser” just to keep up with the front-running Red Bulls and the resurgent Ferraris.

Let’s examine these four points in turn.  I’ll offer my thoughts about the first two in this post, then follow up with the last two points in my next post.

Ferrari’s Return to Form

Hockenheim was the first race that Ferrari had won on genuine pace since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.  Last year in Spa, a mixture of an aggressive drive by Kimi Raikkonen combined with the straightline speed advantage conferred by KERS beat the pole-sitting Force India driven by a particularly inspired Giancarlo Fisichella.

Although Fernando Alonso won this year’s season opening Grand Prix of Bahrain, the victory in Sakhir owed more to misfortune befalling the fastest car-driver combination from that weekend, Sebastian Vettel in the Red Bull-Renault RB6, than to the F10‘s inherent speed at that time of the season.  While it’s true that the Ferraris were consistently the best of the rest that weekend behind Vettel’s Red Bull, neither Alonso nor teammate Felipe Massa looked fast enough at any point in the weekend to usurp Vettel’s position at the front.  Not only that, but the results in subsequent grands prix strongly suggest that the Ferraris rarely, if ever, looked like a potential race winner until the German Grand Prix.  They had no pole positions (Red Bull has had a complete stranglehold on this statistic thus far this year) and no fastest race laps (a strong indication of race form, in my opinion) until the British Grand Prix, the race immediately preceding Hockenheim.  Until Germany, the Ferrari was at best the 2nd best car in the very early part of the season, slipping to 3rd best behind both Red Bull and McLaren by the fourth grand prix of the season (China).

(As an aside, I have long considered the slower of a team’s two cars at any given grand prix weekend to be the measure of the car’s maximum potential performance.  The faster of the two cars is faster because its driver makes the difference; in other words, the extra speed comes from the driver’s abilities.  For me this is an almost absolute rule except in rare circumstances, especially in decades past – specifically the 1980s – when sometimes a driver would deliberately sacrifice ultimate speed in favor of superior race pace.  I think there’s a little bit of that with McLaren’s current lineup:  I think Lewis Hamilton is ultimately able to drive the McLaren faster, but that Jenson Button works on his car’s setup more and so is able to sometimes produce a better race result than Hamilton.

Therefore, even though there have been races when Alonso qualified in the top two rows, the slower Ferrari driven by Massa is almost always slower than the slower McLaren on almost every given weekend.  Alonso is, to me, the superior Ferrari driver; this is why he almost always produces a better performance, whether in qualifying or during the race, compared to Massa, except in circumstances where there are car failures or accidents.)

Germany belonged to Ferrari, pure and simple.  Although Vettel sustained Red Bull’s amazing perfect streak in pole positions so far this year, both Alonso and Massa were never far from the top of the times the entire weekend, the red cars finally looking fast and stable.  Indeed, the slower Ferrari in qualifying (Massa’s) was still quicker than the slower of the Red Bulls (Mark Webber, who qualified in P4).

Perhaps the only hypothetical that could have prevented Ferrari from winning at Hockenheim last weekend was Vettel’s start.  If Sebastian hadn’t flubbed his start so badly and converted his pole position into the race lead, who knows if he would have had enough pace to stay in front of both the red cars from Maranello.  It’s an interesting what if, but my personal belief is that given the relative closeness in performance of the top three (Alonso, Massa, and Vettel), whoever led away from the start had a significant strategic advantage given that overtaking is so difficult at Hockenheim, despite the very slow 2nd gear hairpin (Turn 4) which seems designed to facilitate passing.  Barring any mistakes on-track or in the pits or any other factors such as decisions issued by the pit crews, the order was unlikely to change.

So, the big question:  How did Ferrari regain its form?  I think it’s obvious that they have finally begun to understand their F10, after losing their way in the early part of the year.

Perhaps unusually, Ferrari did not have a clearly original technical innovation on the F10.  Compared especially to McLaren’s MP4-25, with its revolutionary F-duct rear wing system, and the Red Bull RB6 and its blown diffuser, the F10 was a fairly conventional F1 car.  The most innovative feature on the F10 was its unique wheel rim crowns, which are aerodynamic devices on the wheels which help clean up airflow from the aerodynamically-turbulent wheels.  While Ferrari are unique in having these wheel rim crowns this year, the advantages this feature give are not considered to be as big as either the F-duct or the blown diffuser.

Ferrari first tried to incorporate the F-duct, but quite clearly lost its way during its tests of the system.  They couldn’t find quite the right balance between the straightline speed advantage the F-duct endows and the significant downforce loss that occurs.  McLaren, of course, pioneered the feature, so they designed their entire car with this feature incorporated and have refined it to the point where its advantages have completely eliminated the disadvantages.  Ferrari, however, did a better job at incorporating Red Bull’s blown diffuser concept on their car, coming close to mastering it at Valencia and obviously exploiting it to the max in Germany.

Team Orders:  The Case Against Ferrari

As someone who used to love Scuderia Ferrari, I found it somewhat amusing that the argument over team orders in Formula 1 would explode back into prominence and that the team from Maranello would be involved in it, front-and-center.  Why was I so amused?  Because I still remember the Michael Schumacher era at Ferrari, and how much I grew to really loathe the team with the red cars and the man from Kerpen.

Here’s a short retelling of how the team orders furore became the story in Hockenheim:  Sebastian Vettel won the pole position for the German GP with a sensational final lap in Q3.  Before his last effort, Alonso was on provisional pole.  Nevertheless, both Ferraris looked like very strong contenders for the race win barring mishaps.

At the start, however, Vettel had a horrendous getaway from his grid position and attempted to squeeze Alonso into the pit wall.  Alonso kept his nerve and his foot on the throttle and got ahead of Vettel, expecting to lead into the first corner, only to find Felipe Massa had beat both him and Vettel and took the lead.

Massa set a good pace and ran ahead of his teammate, even into and out of the mandatory tire stops, looking very comfortable at the point.  He wasn’t going away and hiding from his teammate, but it was clear that he had enough speed to keep Alonso behind.  Given the configuration of the circuit, and perhaps also given car setups (perhaps Alonso’s setup was calculated with the idea that he would be in front and therefore carried more downforce to preserve the tires, instead of a lower downforce configuration for extra straightline speed), Massa’s lead looked safe enough from his teammate.

Alonso then radioed his pit, telling them “This is ridiculous!,” implying that he felt that Massa was holding him up.  Ferrari responded by having Rob Smedley, Massa’s race engineer, radio Felipe:  “Fernando is faster than you.  Can you confirm you understood that message?”

Massa apparently understood loud and clear, as he relinquished the lead exiting the hairpin.  Afterwards, Smedley radioed him again, apparently apologizing to him (though Smedley later clarified that he said “sorry” for the fact that he lost the lead).

Here’s my take on the how the lead change from Massa to Alonso went down:  Barring a rather unusual technical issue such as a big engine problem or a gearbox/transmission problem, it’s virtually impossible for a car in front of another to suddenly just lose forward drive at the exit of a very slow corner like a hair pin.  If a car indeed suffer such a problem, it’s highly unlikely for that car to make the finish, as it would have been a fairly catastrophic problem.  Neither could such an overtake occur with a driver error; Massa’s tail didn’t step out (power oversteer, indicating that he might have been far too exuberant in getting back on the throttle at corner exit), so it certainly didn’t look like he made a mistake at that point of the circuit.

In short, it’s almost impossible for a healthy car to lose a position to a car behind under acceleration from a slow corner exit like a hairpin unless the driver of the car in front actually doesn’t accelerate out of the corner as well as he could.

In my opinion, Massa wanted to make as overt a gesture in allowing Alonso through in response to his team’s command as possible.  He could have perhaps slowed on the main straight, or he could have lost his lead in a slow corner entry, making it look like Alonso simply outbraked him going into the corner; these are fairly conventional and normal ways to overtake a slower car.  But by choosing the manner and the place of how he was overtaken, I think Massa wanted to demonstrate his extreme disappointment and unhappiness over how his team treated him.

The thing is, if I was in his shoes, I would probably feel the same way.

No driver wants to be told to relinquish position to any competitor, but especially to as direct a rival as one’s teammate.  This is so much more true given Massa’s lack of success for the entire year up that point compared to Alonso.

In the aftermath of the race, Massa, being a team player, was cagey enough to just stop short of suggest that the radio transmissions from Smedley were team orders.

Though Ferrari denied (and continues to deny) it, many in the media covering Formula 1 and fans in the know understood that Smedley’s transmissions were coded orders from the team to Massa telling him to cede position to Alonso.

Unfortunately for everyone, from the drivers to their teams, to the media and finally the fans that love the sport, there is a ban on team orders in Formula 1.  All you would really get in the wake of this incident is a guaranteed controversy, and that is what we have right now.

Ferrari justified its radio calls to Massa (the team absolutely refuses to acknowledge that it issued orders to its drivers over the radio) by casting it in light of the championship situation:  As of the end of the British Grand Prix, Alonso had 98 points, Massa 67.  The championship leader, Lewis Hamilton, had 145.  Obviously, the chief (and arguably, only) beneficiary of changing the running order in Germany was Alonso.  If Massa had won and Alonso finished in second, Ferrari would still have amassed the maximum number of Constructors’ points.  So it’s clear that Ferrari decided to “help” Alonso’s championship chances by sacrificing his teammate’s own aspirations.

Until the outright ban on team orders, I would have had no problem with that IF it was very late in the season and there were only a limited number of points to be won, and IF only one of a team’s two drivers had a mathematical shot at winning the championship.

We are clearly very far from the end of the championship, barely having crossed the halfway point.  To me, that means that the drivers’ championship is wide open.  Indeed, the gap between championship leader Hamilton to Alonso is a mere 24 points, which means Alonso is within one win’s points total away from taking the lead.  With eight races to go after Germany, that means there are a whopping 200 maximum points available for any one driver.  What this also means is that Massa still has a shot at winning the championship.

Let’s talk about some more hypotheticals here, given the situation right now.  What if Alonso were to somehow encounter some kind of trouble which would result in him discontinuing his participation in the rest of the season?  What if he gets injured in a practice accident, or maybe suffers a broken leg falling down the stairs?  What if massively bad luck were to suddenly shadow Fernando between now and the end of the year?  What if Massa gets galvanized by the apparent lack of favor he enjoys with Ferrari and starts destroying Alonso?  The point of all these hypothetical questions is, there’s a very long way until the end of the year, and even though Alonso is comprehensively leading his teammate, who is to say that there might be a reversal of fortune?

As F1 reporter Joe Saward wrote in his blog, “Ferrari is putting its eggs in one basket.”  If Lady Luck decides to forsake Fernando and side with Massa, Ferrari will have unwittingly jeopardized its own ambitions of having one of its drivers win the drivers’ championship if Felipe winds up Ferrari’s pacesetter from here on out.  It’s not probable that this is what would happen, but then nothing is impossible.

I’m sure Fernando Alonso’s rationale in communicating his perception that he was much faster than Massa (a debatable point, in my opinion; Joe Saward very helpfully provides some lap time data from Germany that suggests that maybe Massa was not interested in running flat out even while he was in the lead) was that he fully understood that overtaking at Hockenheim is a risky proposition given the closeness in performance of the cars.  Obviously he wanted to win this race; however, he understood that fighting for the lead was going to be so difficult that it may have resulted in an accident which might have completely eliminated both Ferraris and allowed a Red Bull to win instead.  His radio message was a call for intervention; I facetiously call it a prayer to the gods.  I don’t know if he expected help from his team, but the facts bear out that the pitwall gods in control of the team smiled upon him and frowned upon Massa.

As a long-time fan of F1, I know that team orders, whether officially or unofficially, have always been part of the sport.  To be honest, I have no problem with Ferrari telling their drivers what to do.  What I DO have a problem with is the misuse or outright abuse of team orders, and I will be so bold as to suggest that this is what most fans have a problem with as well.  In my opinion, by taking the race results out of their drivers’ hands by sending coded orders to one of them to cede position to the other, they robbed the fans of what should have been another result altogether (i.e., Massa winning in Hockenheim, amazingly a year to the day since his life-threatening accident at the Hungaroring).

I believe racing drivers should RACE.  If Alonso wanted to win, he should have been prepared to fight for the position against Massa.  Overtaking is, by its very nature, a risky proposition, no matter what the circumstances are.  It doesn’t matter if you’re trying to pass a guy driving a different car from yours or if it’s a teammate, or if it’s an overtake for position or a lapping maneuver.  And the onus to make the pass work without harm to any of the parties involved always lies with the guy attempting the overtake.  To my mind, Alonso decided that it was going to be too difficult to try to pass his teammate, but he still wanted the rewards of winning the race.  From purely just a sporting perspective, calling the pits the way and relaying his frustrations with the apparent expectation of intervention is nothing short of cheating.  But that’s admittedly a Ferrari hater’s opinion.

So, how did I wind up with such a clear bias against Ferrari?  Well, to make a long story short, when Michael Schumacher joined the team in 1996, I stopped loving the red cars from Maranello.  I used to be a gigantic tifoso.  Along with McLaren and Lotus, they were always one of my favorites in F1.  Even in their post-Prost years in the doldrums, even when they were catastrophic from 1991-1993 and beyond, I was a Ferrari fan.  But when Michael Schumacher, who is as dirty a racing driver as you’ll ever find, joined the team, I stopped loving it.  I simply couldn’t love any team that would take on a dirty cheat like Schumacher.  (My opinions of Schumacher were changed forever the day he drove into Damon Hill’s Williams in Adelaide, Australia, in 1994.  You still don’t think he’s a dirty rotten cheat?  Look at Jerez 1997 for another blatant example.)

I’ve heard it said that Ferrari took on Schumacher because they wanted to do everything it could to get back to its winning ways.  I can accept that, up to a point.  But when the team enables Schumacher and allows him to dictate terms insofar as how he wants his teammate’s contracts are to be written, well…

It’s not a secret that Michael Schumacher imposed a stipulation on Ferrari’s management that any driver whom the team signed to be his teammate must be subservient to Michael Schumacher’s needs at all times.  What does this mean?  This means that if there is only one of a technical component available at any given time, only Schumacher takes advantage of it; if Schumacher breaks his car in practice or qualifying, his teammate must come in and have his car reconfigured to suit Schumacher, therefore sacrificing his teammate’s own interests in the team; if Schumacher is behind his teammate in a race, the team can impose team orders and tell his teammate to cede position.

For a great “champion” like Schumacher, it’s strange to know that he so overtly handicapped his own teammate’s chances in every single race that they had.

Eddie Irvine was Schumacher’s first slave at Ferrari.  Rubens Barrichello followed, and though he won races for the Scuderia, he was also ordered to relinquish a few as well, a fact that galls him to this day and undoubtedly colors his relationship with Ross Brawn (who was Ferrari’s technical director/pit crew commander during Schumacher’s halcyon days).  There have been numerous instances where Schumacher benefited from team orders, but the most infamous race was the Austrian GP in 2002.

Understand, now, that it was fairly rare when a teammate was actually performing better than Schumacher was during his period of absolute dominance.  Such was the case in Austria in 2002.  Rubens Barrichello had beaten Schumacher in every session, in qualifying, and was leading the race going into the final laps.  In 2002, the Ferraris were absolutely dominant; it was clear that nobody was going to threaten Ferrari and Schumacher in their quest for the Constructors’ and Drivers’ championships.  Not even Barrichello was a threat, with Schumacher having a buffer of around four race victories’ worth of points between them at that point of the championship.

So what happened in Austria?  Schumacher called to the pits and told them about how he wanted to take P1 for the maximum haul of championship points to help his own cause; Ferrari then ordered Barrichello to yield first place to his teammate.  Barrichello did not respond on the radio and kept the lead all throughout the final lap, until just a few meters from the finish line he lifted off the throttle and allowed Schumacher through.

Schumacher received the full 10 pts for his win, but was booed so vociferously by the crowd because of the shenanigans.  The crowd fully understood what had happened – everyone knew about the contractual stipulations that existed at Ferrari vis-a-vis their drivers.  After all, they had seen a similar thing happen in Austria just the previous year, when Barrichello ceded second place to Schumacher to help Schumacher’s championship aspirations.

The ultimate consequence of Ferrari’s use (in my opinion, abuse and misuse) of team orders during Schumacher’s time with them was the outright banning of overt team orders.  No longer were teams allowed to dictate tactics such as changes in position between teammates the way they always did.  Obviously, Ferrari was possibly unique at the time when they operated mainly to benefit just one of their drivers; other teams, for example McLaren, have always allowed their drivers to race each other, even at the risk of possibly taking each other out.  Occasionally, McLaren acted like Ferrari in sometimes telling one driver to cede position to benefit their other driver (Hakkinen benefited twice from Coulthard’s ceding position), but no team has abused such protocol as Ferrari and Schumacher have.

That’s why I thought it was so amusing Ferrari now are apparently in some trouble for how they conducted their 2010 German Grand Prix.  They got busted, caught red-handed as it were, and are in “denial mode” to anyone who would listen that they used team orders to effect a position swap between their drivers, contravening a sporting regulation that they themselves helped to create in the first place.

Sorry, but I think the video feeds and the radio transmissions are too obvious.

About as obvious as Massa slowing down at the exit of the hairpin…

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