F1 German GP: Just Following Orders

If you didn’t know what Article 39.1 of the F1 Sporting Regulations was before this race, you will now. The race looked like it would be a Ferrari 1-2 with Felipe Massa leading Fernando Alonso. But then the call went out on the radio: “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm that you understood that?” A couple of laps later saw Massa inexplicably slow out of the hairpin and Alonso cruise by en route to victory. To say that this win was controversial would be a wild and dangerous understatement.

There’s no real point in recapping this race. Vettel tried too hard to block Alonso on the inside heading into turn one. Not only did Alonso get through but Massa got by them both. There was a problem with that, though. Coming into the race, Alonso said that he wasn’t out of the championship hunt and a win in one of the next two races would vault him right back into contention. Also, heading into this race, Massa sat 31 points behind Alonso in the Drivers’ Championship standings. So when Rob Smedley radioed Massa and said “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm that you understood that?” we knew what was up.

Team orders were banned following the infamous incident of Austria 2002 when Rubens Barrichello pulled over on the frontstretch with the checkered flag in sight to let Michael Schumacher pick up the victory. Now, article 39.1 of the F1 Sporting Regulations state “Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited.” That seems pretty straight forward but the question is if circumstantial evidence that stacked up during the race will be enough for the FIA to get off its ass and do something about this.

Let’s go over the other circumstantial evidence. After the pass, Smedley said to Massa “Okay mate, good lad. Stay with him now. Sorry.” Basically confirmation of what we already thought. On the in lap, Smedley radioed “Felipe Massa is back in business. Great result and very magnanimous. You won’t have any idea what that words means but I’ll explain later.” And in the post-race press conference, Massa said, “I don’t think I have to say anything about that.” He’s right. He doesn’t.

The post-race stewards’ investigation concluded with Ferrari being fined $100,000 for violating the team orders rule and referred the team to the World Motor Sport Council to determine if further punishment should be handed down Of course, I don’t think the World Motor Sport Council will or should do anything. Formula One is a team sport. If the FIA and WMSC decide to finally enforce Article 39.1 of the sporting regs, they’ve opened Pandora’s box. Team orders are a standard thing, most teams aren’t caught doing it. Like most folks, I’m not happy about what happened but I can understand the thinking behind it. They would have been 1-2 regardless and Alonso was threatening to legitimately pass Massa and was faster once he got by. He probably gotten by on the up and up but got some help from the team. That’s F1, I guess.

•••

I don’t know what Bridgestone thinks but I think their grand master plan of running the softest and hardest tire in their collection during the race was a failure. They thought that the massive difference in grip would encourage teams to change tires multiple times to increase the pace. They figured that would do a good job of replicating the excitement of the Canadian Grand Prix. The problem was that the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve tore up the tires and spit them out. Hockenheim just saw cars a little upset by the large swings in grip but it didn’t produce any better racing. As a matter of fact, before the team orders crisis, it was the most dull race of the year since Bahrain. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that Ferrari-dominated races tend to be dull.

•••

From the mount of BBC commentator Martin Brundle: “Massa’s been running into Virgins in all the wrong places. That’s a line that we could entertain ourselves with all afternoon.” No, Martin. Nobody else would have found that dirty if you didn’t tell us that you were attempting to make a pun.

•••

Another team has thrown it’s name into the hat for the 13th grid spot of the 2011 season. Villeneuve Racing announced that it’s applying for the grid spot. If you’ve never heard of the team before, that’s okay. It’s a joint venture between Jacques Villeneuve and Durango Racing. Durango is a former GP2 outfit that’s now running in Auto GP. Villeneuve drove for Durango in the Speedcar series before it folded.

Seeing as we don’t know everyone that’s applied so far, we don’t know how Villeneuve’s effort will stack against the rest. We have an experienced racing team that will move up because it’s sponsors are willing to put in more money to run F1 than GP2. Villeneuve is supposed to be bringing substantial commercial backing as well. Also, the 1997 World Champion is expected to spend at least one year in the cockpit of one of his own machines.

Not that the racing pedigree of the two partners are in question, but doesn’t it seem ridiculous that we’re going through the same process that killed US F1 and nearly killed HRT. After all, a team will have some eight months to get money, prepare an F1 infrastructure, design a car, build the car, and test the car before the first race. What the FIA is trying to accomplish by holding out on making a decision as long as possible is beyond my comprehension. Is it really that hard to pick in March so teams have 12 months to prepare? Or, better yet, how about letting teams that turn up with a legal car race. Works well for NASCAR.

•••

The head of the US GP promoting group, Tavo Hellmund, says that despite the fact that my favourite track designer, Hermann Tilke, is designing the new track in Austin, it’ll be a departure from the standard Tilke fare. In an interview with Autosport, Hellmund said the track will be a bit over three miles long and have over 100 feet of elevation change. Care has been taken so most fans will be able to see multiple corners from the grandstands. Hellmund says that he and Tilke sat down and picked some of their favourite corners from tracks worldwide from past and present. He says that it won’t be a cookie cutter track and that Texans will be proud of it. Well, Tilke took that exact strategy with Istanbul Park and everyone, myself included, says that’s his best track. Looking forward to the unveiling of the design in the next couple of weeks.

•••

It’s a quick turnaround for the F1 circus. The next race is next week at the Hungaroring for the Hungarian Giant Parade. Yes, it’s time for the annual trip to everyone’s favourite circuit. This circuit is fairly slick which, combined with a layout more appropriate for a go-kart circuit, makes for a dull parade.

Usually, this race is about downforce and qualifying above all else. Given Red Bull’s proficiency in qualifying and the fact that their car generates more downforce than rest of the grid, you’d be hard-pressed not to call them the favourites. McLaren won at the Hungaroring last year thanks to strategy, luck and a KERS-aided start. I don’t think the F-duct will power them to victory this time. If you want some darkhorses, look for Fernando Alonso to run upfront. He’s historically done well at the Hungaroring. Robert Kubica was quick at Monaco which is another circuit which is slick, slow and has almost no passing.

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