Jean Todt probably allowed himself a wry smile during the week. Arch rivals McLaren had a question mark placed on their Monaco Grand Prix victory when they were investigated for supposedly manipulating the result. It is somewhat ironic that McLaren are the first team to be scrutinised for using illegal team orders, since it was the antics of Ferrari that had them banned in the first place.

The outcome of the FIA investigation was fairly predictable as McLaren had clearly done nothing wrong. Only the British press seemed convinced that Ron Dennis had manipulated the race, and it may just be the FIA investigation was to appease an angry media.

The main reason behind the FIA’s probe, and the reason that team orders were banned, is to protect the sport from a series of events that started nine years ago. Although the current ban on team orders is fairly recent they were first outlawed in 1998 after three consecutive Grands Prix where the results had been artificial.

The first of those races was the Japanese Grand Prix of 1997, and it was a great example of how to win a race by using two cars. Michael Schumacher needed victory to stay alive in the championship so Ferrari hatched a plan that involved their number two driver, Eddie Irvine. Ferrari put Irvine on a light fuel load at the start, and with a bit of help from second placed Schumacher, he aggressively fought his way from fourth to first. The Irishman pulled out a big lead and he maintained it during the pitstops when Michael managed to jump ahead of championship rival Villeneuve. Just before half-distance Irvine was asked by Ferrari to slow down and gift the race lead to Schumacher. Not only did Irvine let his team leader ahead but he also delayed the rest of the field behind.

Irvine’s fuel load at the start and slow-down tactics during the race gifted Michael Schumacher victory. It was an excellent result for Ferrari that required the input of both drivers, but it’s doubtful they could get away with the same tactics today.

Two weeks after the Japanese Grand Prix the circus arrived at Jerez for the final race of 1997. The McLaren team agreed to help Williams in their bid for the championship and told their drivers not to battle with Jacques Villeneuve in the opening stages. At the end of the race, Villeneuve was leading both McLarens but let them past to say ‘thank you’ for their earlier assistance. Ron Dennis had already asked Coulthard to move aside for Hakkinen, so it meant the top three drivers reversed their positions in the final laps. It was a blatant example of race manipulation, and it meant Hakkinen took his first victory because the two faster drivers in front of him were asked to move over.

Michael Schumacher’s crash that weekend overshadowed the whole Grand Prix, so the controversial finish was quickly forgotten.

At the next Grand Prix, Mika Hakkinen took his second victory very similarly to how he had taken his first. McLaren were so dominant at Melbourne in 1998 that Hakkinen and Coulthard agreed not to race each other after the first corner. Hakkinen took the lead at the turn one, so as per their arrangement he would be allowed to win the race. When Mika was delayed in the pits, Coulthard took the lead but stuck to the original agreement and let Hakkinen back through for victory.

It was the third race in a row where Grand Prix victory had been given to someone as a present, and there was understandable outrage. The sport no longer appeared to be a genuine contest because the team tactics were ruining the value of winning. The FIA immediately banned “any act prejudicial to the interests of any competition” meaning team orders would no longer be tolerated.

Ferrari made a mockery of the ruling nine races later at the Austrian Grand Prix when Irvine slowed to let Schumacher take third place from him. Ferrari claimed afterwards it wasn’t a ‘team order’ and that Irvine had dropped his pace because he was suffering from brake problems. Miraculously, Irvine’s brake problems disappeared as soon as Schumacher got ahead.

By season’s end the FIA changed their ruling and declared team orders were fine provided their use could be justified in the championship. This relaxed interpretation opened the doors for unashamed use of team tactics throughout the 1999 season, and not surprisingly Ferrari took full advantage. Ironically team orders turned out to be counter productive for the prancing horse in ’99 when Schumacher’s accident at Silverstone meant all of Irvine’s supporting efforts were wasted. Eddie spent the first half of his season helping Michael, but the second half of his season being helped by someone else.

Ferrari team orders came into affect at the French, German, Belgian and Malaysian Grands Prix, and their tactics were often condemned by rivals. Despite this, team orders were still an accepted part of Grand Prix racing, and there was nothing wrong with using one car to help another.

The 2002 Austrian Grand Prix changed that perception.

Ferrari’s actions at the A1 Ring were unfortunate to say the least. Coming into the Austrian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher had a 21 point lead in the championship and the F2002 he was driving was so far undefeated. Forcing Barrichello to give up his deserved victory to help Michael’s campaign was not necessary at that point of the season. The championship standings after only five rounds did not justify Ferrari’s decision since Michael had already won four races (and went on to win another seven quite easily).

Barrichello handled the situation with great maturity afterwards, but had every right to feel as if he had been robbed by his own team. Many F1 Fans agreed.

Ferrari’s tactics at Austria gave Schumacher an extra four points, and it is worth noting he ended up winning the championship by a margin of 67. Barrichello was allowed to win the European Grand Prix ahead of Michael a few races later which really confirmed how futile, and detrimental, their efforts in Austria had been.

Still, Ferrari could never have anticipated the negative backlash, especially after the previous race held at the A1 Ring. In the 2001 event Schumacher was forced to race from the back of the field after clashing with Montoya early on. At the end of his solid recovery drive Michael was in third behind Rubens and predictably Ferrari asked their drivers to swap. Barrichello did so reluctantly and grumbled in the post-race press conference saying nothing except “the team have asked me to do this”. At that time there was little sympathy for Rubens given his position in the championship. 2001 had been shaping up as a close battle and Schumacher was Ferrari’s only hope of the title.

The main difference in 2002 was that Ferrari had manipulated the race winner. A Grand Prix victory is a treasured prize, one of the most sacred and valued trophies in world motorsport. Schumacher’s victory was worth nothing because he was blatantly undeserving and races like that tarnish the honour of winning in Formula One. Victory loses its significance when it isn’t cherished or earned.

That is why F1 fans erupted after Austria, because winning should be the ultimate prize, not a present.

Ferrari only made it worse at Indianapolis when a contrived photo-finish went wrong, and their drivers accidentally swapped positions before the chequered flag.

The FIA acted and banned ‘team orders’ the following year.

In reality, teams should be allowed to do whatever they can to win the championship, but when the title is not at stake (like Austria and Indy 2002) it is insolent to stage-manage results. The current rule is in place to protect the sanctity of a Grand Prix win.

That is why the FIA investigated McLaren, because there is a rule in place to prevent the sport from being devalued by manufactured results. McLaren did nothing to diminish the value of Fernando Alonso’s triumph at Monaco, and were rightly cleared of any wrong-doing. Ron Dennis was totally justified in asking Alonso and Hamilton to cool their pace, especially given Lewis was bouncing off the wall every now and then.

If McLaren had asked their drivers to switch positions, it would be a totally different story.

2007 is becoming a very close season and team tactics will play a big part. There is nothing wrong with that when the championship is at stake, and it is good to know the FIA are prepared to act when it is not.

McLaren had to be investigated to remind everyone that races like Jerez 1997 or Austria 2002 cannot be repeated, and that is good news for Formula One.

Post a comment