Sunday, 25 July 2010

All for One and One for Ferrari

Eight years ago, on a warm summer's day in Austria, an uncomfortable Michael Schumacher ushered his team-mate, Rubens Barrichello, onto the top spot of the podium at the A1 Ring. Minutes earlier, the Brazilian had slowed his Ferrari on the last lap of the race to allow the German to take the win.

The move was ordered by the team to ensure their Number One had the very best opportunity to win the championship. It was a move which effectively told Barrichello he was the support act to a man whose team was built around him. It also landed Ferrari a massive fine and a new rule in the FIA's chunky book of regulations.

Yesterday in Germany, another Brazilian must have reflected on those events of 2002. Exactly a year ago to the day, Felipe Massa was in an induced coma after a near-fatal accident in Hungary. But here at Hockenheim, leading the race, he was being told the words he hoped as a sportsman he would not have to hear. They came from his race engineer and friend, Rob Smedley. They were delivered in a very slow and controlled manner.

"So Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message."

Massa did.

Seconds later, the Spaniard swept past the other scarlet Ferrari. It was a move Fernando Alonso was unable to achieve in the 48 previous laps.

Smedley came back on the radio to Massa: "Ok mate, good lad. Just stick with him now."

Alonso continued on his way, passing the finishing line ahead of Massa and Germany's new wunderkid, Sebastian Vettel.

The Ferrari drivers exited their cars and their body language said everything to hundreds of millions of Formula 1 fans around the world. They moved onto the podium without the kind of celebration one might have expected for the first Ferrari win since the start of the season. The champagne even seemed to have to force itself from the bottles, such was the lack of vigour from the drivers. Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro Principal Stefano Domenicali, always amongst the most affable of team bosses, gave the Brazilian a warm hug for his efforts.

Shortly afterwards, Domenicali was deep in conversation, via mobile, with Ferrari President Luca di Montezemolo. Both must have acknowledged the furore which was to follow. Article 39.1 of the Formula One Sporting Regulations clearly states: Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited. It was the rule introduced in 2002.

By this stage the media storm was building to hurricane pitch. Red Bull boss Christian Horner said the incident was the "clearest team order" he had seen. Former F1 team owner Eddie Jordan talked about a "theft" at the denial of the right to watch two drivers race wheel-to-wheel.

Ferrari was called in to see the FIA stewards. Usually when that happens someone -- or some team -- is in for a big bollocking. The fact that only one team was called meant it was little surprise that Ferrari emerged with a $100,000 fine and a referral to the FIA's World Motor Sport Council, a body which can impose unlimited sanctions. That date is set for September 8th.

What this episode demonstrates is the huge pressure on the Scuderia to deliver. No other team is bigger or more closely aligned to Formula 1. No other country more fanatical or vocal about its motor sport than Italy. And no other fans are more demanding of excellence than the Tifosi.

Since Alonso's win in Bahrain, the results have been poor through a mixture of an underperforming car and problems in the race. Back in Maranello, the presence of Luca di Montezemolo at at least one post-race debrief this year signalled the intense desire to turn around Ferrari's fortunes. And only this weekend Stefano Domenicali made it perfectly clear what he expected from all in his team: "Anyone who does not believe that we can win the world championship would do better looking for another job."

Michael Schumacher, with the help of Jean Todt, Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, led Ferrari out of the wilderness during the 1990s. By the early noughties it was dominating the sport. But that feeling of success -- despite Kimi Raikkonen delivering Ferrari a WDC by one point in 2007 -- has been absent for too long.

Perhaps the most telling point of yesterday came from Schumacher after the race. Referring to the driver swap on track, he gave a wry smile and expressed his sympathies for his friend and former team-mate Felipe. He told BBC Sport there were "nicer" ways to deliver team orders but added he fully accepted the concept in principle.

"I have been criticised in the past for exactly that and I understand 100%. But at the end of the day you are fighting for the Championship and only one can win the Championship.

"By the end of the year, if you think you would have lost the Championship by exactly that point, you will ask yourself, not only yourself but all the fans and the TV and the journalists and so on, 'why didn't you do so?'

"There's only one target and that's winning the championship."

I have to say, I am in complete agreement.

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