Why

Why

Saturday, 20 June 2015

IT HAPPENED IN AUSTRIA - THE UNPOPULAR TEAM ORDER

Far from tears of joy! Image Courtesy - ESPNF1 
It might be a super-hero movie cliché but there is a lot of merit to this line - 'you always have a choice'. Looking back, if Michael Schumacher felt Rubens Barrichello deserved the win (at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix), he would not have crossed the finish line ahead of his Brazilian teammate. The two Ferraris might have been stranded few metres before the chequered flag, egging each other to cross the line first. Nothing of that sort happened - in a matter of few seconds, Michael Schumacher benefitted from the team orders. Team orders are fine, but personally I felt, this was one occasion where the Ferrari think tank went a bit overboard.

Having said that, Formula One is a team sport, it is a business with all the commercial jargons packed in and served to us twenty times a year. It is the ultimate prize in motor-racing and it is also an expensive affair. Teams invest a lot and everybody strives to win. Yes, it is all about winning - but at what cost?

PERILS OF A NUMBER TWO DRIVER
I am a Ferrari fan and an ardent admirer of Michael Schumacher. But on the Sunday of 12 May 2002, I didn't enjoy that particular victory a lot. Yes, it was 1-2 Ferrari, but there was more to it. Even in business, some situations are not crystal clear unlike the well-penned points in a contract and yes, Rubens Barrichello deserved the win irrespective of the championship situation. It wasn't the first time such a fate has met a driver. Team orders have been issued by all the big teams and in fact even Michael Schumacher was driver number two, helping Eddie Irvine during the 1999 season. Coulthard was the regular man Friday to Hakkinen on numerous occasions in 1998 and 1999 and not to forget, Damon Hill helped Alain Prost win his fourth world title in 1993. The examples can go on... but i hope you get the gist of what I am trying to say here.

IT HAPPENED A YEAR AGO
At the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix, Michael Schumacher was behind the race leader Juan Pablo Montoya trailing by 1.6s. The fight was getting intense and on lap 16,  Michael tried to pass into the right-hander at turn two; Montoya did well to block the racing line but went wide and didn't leave any racing line to Michael Schumacher, which forced both cars to go off-track. No damage done, however a line of cars - Barrichello, Verstappen, Coulthard, Raikkonen and Olivier Panis went past them. Schumacher summed up the incident - "The fight had been fair until the incident, then he tried to take me out at the corner, and I had to go on the grass because I couldn't turn in on him. He wasn't looking where he was going, he was looking where I was going'.

Montoya tries hard to stop a quicker Schumacher at the 2001 Austrian Grand Prix

Schumacher upped his pace and was in third position by lap 28. Coulthard in second position and the other Ferrari driver Barrichello, led the race. Schumacher soon joined this duo and 0.9s separated the top three places as Michael Schumacher was first to pit on lap 46 and two corners later ran wide losing few tenths of a second on his out-lap. A lap later, Rubens Barrichello pits and comes ahead of Michael Schumacher. The race was now in the hands of Coulthard and his team of mechanics. Coulthard stayed on track for two more laps before coming in to the pits on lap 50. Eight seconds stationary (it was the era of refuelling!!!) and emerged out of the pits as the race leader. Twenty one laps remaining, the championship contender from McLaren was in the lead with the Ferraris behind him. With Mika Hakkinen's woes continued, it was already established that, it was the Scotsman who would lead the championship battle from McLaren. The win for Coulthard would narrow Schumacher's lead in the title race.

The race order remained this way - Coulthard, Barrichello and Michael Schumacher. With less than three laps to go, Jean Todt called on Barrichello to inform him to give way for Schumacher to have those extra two points. Rubens waited...the cars were at the fading stages of the penultimate lap, the race order remained the same... all eyes were on Jean Todt as he discussed with Ross Brawn and called on Barrichello once again as the cars crossed the finish line for one last lap - "Rubens, it's the last lap, let Michael pass for the championship, let Michael pass for the championship Rubens, please".

Rubens did let Michael pass in the final corner and thereby picking up those additional two points. Yes, it was disappointing for Rubens but one has to remember, Formula One at that point was (and still is) a team sport and Ferrari were not the first ones to employ such tactics to help a driver win the championship. With Coulthard's unexpected victory, the points table was a lot closer. Michael Schumacher led the championships by four points to David Coulthard's 38 points and Rubens Barrichello had only mustered eighteen points. 'If I hadn't been close to Rubens the team would not have asked. Ferrari might have a different philosophy to McLaren, who have also used this strategy in the past. Imagine, how it would be if we got to the end of the season and lost the World Championship by two points'. 

There is a lot of merit to this argument (Eddie Irvine lost to Hakkinen in 1999 by two points) - but what happened next year at the same venue was nowhere close to this.

NEXT YEAR WAS NOT THE SAME
Strictly, there are no comparisons from these two races. In 2001, Michael Schumacher was dominant in most parts of the race and one might argue, barring for few racing incidents, he did deserve to win the race. Besides, the championship battle was tighter in 2001.  

In 2002, it wasn't the case. First and foremost, Rubens Barrichello did an excellent job of being the fastest driver in the warm-up, took the pole position and led the race for all laps but for the final corner when he had to yield to Michael Schumacher and this time, it was for the victory and no, there was no championship at stake. Yes, team orders has influenced results to benefit a team and a driver, but on that day, Schumacher coming in second place would not have mattered.

Rubens did everything right...which deserved him to win the race... Team orders went bonkers! 
Moments later, both drivers make a mockery of the ceremony protocol, Michael refused to stand on the top step and instead asked Rubens to stand. German national anthem was heard loud and clear across the track, while it was a Brazilian standing on the top step. When it was the time for Italian national anthem, both Ferrari drivers stood on the podium and there were no signs of joy or the excitement in spite of winning the race 1-2. And to end it, the trophy was presented to Michael Schumacher which he quickly passed on to Rubens Barrichello, who happily accepted it.

THE REPERCURSSIONS
At the end of the day, it was a bad call by the team. Ferrari was winning virtually every race they took part and media houses had to find something to pinch the Italian team. Crowd booed Michael Schumacher and he admitted in the press conference 'it was not a right choice' and 'he derived no joy from this victory and it was not the way he had envisioned to win in Austria for the first time'. It was a wrong choice though Rubens was aware what his role with Ferrari was when he had signed a fresh contract few days earlier.  

Barrichello takes home the trophy while Schumacher gets 10 points... Image Courtesy: Grand Prix Magazine

Michael Schumacher in his position within the team could have argued against the top management's decision to let him pass, perhaps he didn't push it hard as he still had to focus on driving. FIA summoned the team and drivers were questioned in a disciplinary hearing while many writers wrote the race being one of the sad days in Formula One. No, it was a far cry from being sad. If you want to term a sad day in Formula One, then look at the drivers who died racing. That is sad and cruel - and what happened to Rubens was just bad luck and a glimpse at the competitive and human side of Formula One.