I’m sorry if this comes across as a vile, knee-jerk reactionary piece, but there’s no other way to say it. I was disgusted with what I saw at the German Grand Prix this afternoon.
If you don’t know what I’m on about, I’m referring to an incident in the Hockenheim race where Ferrari driver and then race leader Felipe Massa allegedly slowed up to allow teammate Fernando Alonso to pass. Not long before, Massa had received a slow and deliberate message from race engineer Rob Smedley to the effect that ‘Alonso. Was. Faster. Than. Him,’ information widely interpreted as an order to allow the quicker driver through. Alonso went on to win the race, with the Brazilian finishing second.
No sooner had one red car passed the other than television pundits the world over started debating what had happened. Members of other teams deliberated in angry tones, and armchair experts the world over brought the servers of internet forums to their knees as they fought to give their opinion on what had happened. Disgraceful, many cried. Expected, others admitted. Absolutely fine, some argued, pointing out Formula 1 is a team sport and that Grand Prix history has been shaped by team decisions since its very beginnings.
Now, I’m not a F1 engineer. I’m not a competitive racing driver. As much as I might like to pretend, I’m not a journalist either. What I am, though, is the kind of person that Formula 1 is ultimately for. A fan. And as a fan I was very, very disappointed with the way I saw events unfolding at Hockenheim.
I’m not going to be daft enough to claim that team orders never happen in motor sport. What I do believe, though, is that they should never be allowed to manifest themselves so visibly in the on-track action, the thing that the vast majority of punters pay good money – or at least tune in their televisions – to see. Having two cars queuing up for tyres in a heavy rainstorm – or sending one car round for one extra lap on the ‘wrong’ tyres – can be explained away in terms of long-term strategy. Taking a part off one driver’s car and giving it to someone else can likewise be reasoned round in terms of one driver being ‘more comfortable’ with the part than the other. But causing one car to slow down blatantly and obviously on the track (if that indeed is what Ferrari have done) to let another pass is a massive, massive insult to the intelligence of interested spectators.
This isn’t just an F1 issue. If you’re hardy enough to have stuck with the World Rally Championship over the last couple of seasons, you’ll have seen junior drivers on a couple of occasions taking time penalties near the end of the rally, apparently to allow their teammates to take wins and thus boost their championship chances. You’ll have seen the same teams slowing down at the end of stages, or going at seven tenths, to get a better road position for the next day. Again, it’s clear meddling with the natural course of events, and it is a huge slight to those that have bought the tickets, forked out for the t-shirts and spent their time looking at the sponsor logos on the sides of the cars.
Okay, so a racing driver seems to have slowed down and let his teammate past, ostensibly for the good of the team. It’s a team sport, you could argue. What’s ultimately wrong with it? Well, here’s how I see it. In this austere day and age, nobody enters F1 to push forward the technological boundaries of their cars. It’s a business exercise, a way of making money by associating brands with success, excitement and speed. You only need to read a Marketing 101 textbook to understand that the fans see the brands on the super-fast cars, subconsciously decide they want to buy into the lifestyle of their successful heroes and consume the brands they’ve seen when they go home from the circuits. When the fans become disenfranchised, therefore, it’s the whole show that suffers as the revenue for supporting brands – and in turn teams – decreases.
Exactly one year ago, Felipe Massa nearly died. As it stands, his performance in the German Grand Prix is testimony to his remarkable recovery. What Ferrari look to have done, however, is turn a superb good-news story showing their loyalty to a popular and talented driver through times of adversity into a farcical sham of a race. Lots of people – myself included – went off Ferrari after their ferociously preferential treatment to Michael Schumacher in the early 2000s. We were just beginning to forget that and, whisper it, starting to like Ferrari again. If the Facebook statuses and text messages of my friends are anything to go by, however, if the common interpretation of today’s events is to be believed Ferrari have let down the fans that F1 ultimately relies on to continue its self-perpetuating cycle. Ferrari are supposed to be the embodiment of motor racing, and they would do well to remember what exactly it is that draws so many people to the sport.