Austrian Grand Prix 2002 - Seeing Red In Spielberg
I usually write my race reports on the Sunday afternoon as the race happens, sitting on the sofa with a notepad and more often than not a pint. On Sunday I wasted my time. What happened in the dying seconds of the race made everything I'd written up to that point seem fairly redundant.
By now, ione would be hard pressed not to know the story of the weekend already. Rubens Barrichello, contrary to the usual run of events, comfortably outqualified his team mate Michael Schumacher, and was never headed on Sunday afternoon. Until, of course, the last few hundred yards. Under orders from the Ferrari team, he backed off, and handed the victory to Michael Schumacher. The reaction of the TV commentators and the Austrian crowd was instant - outrage. I can't remember the last time a winning driver was booed as he got out of his car, but that is what happened on Sunday afternoon. Rubens Barrichello was robbed, and everyone, Michael included, knew it. There followed farcical scenes on the podium. Michael Schumacher had initially looked happy as he crossed the line, giving the thumbs up to his team as he cruised down the main straight. When he got out of the car and saw the reaction of the crowd - and come to that, the look of disgust on the face of his own brother, his demeanour quickly changed. He looked embarrassed to be standing on the podium, and refused to stand on the top step - instead pushing his reluctant team mate onto the number one spot. Cynics might note that such a gesture was easy enough to make, given that it was he who had bagged the race win and the ten points that went with it. There then followed an awkward press conference in which Ferrari's drivers contrived to dig a still deeper hole for themselves, by contradicting their team manager, Ross Brawn's account of what happened. Michael said that he felt the victory belonged morally to his team mate, and that he had been ordered to take the lead on the last lap by his team. Rubens tried his best not to look too upset about it all, perhaps remembering that he would be receiving a handsome fiscal reward for his subservience.
Meanwhile, Ross Brawn was busy pouring oil on troubled waters down in the pitlane, talking to the TV people. He said that the two drivers had not been allowed to race at all, all afternoon. He went on to add that he told his two drivers what to do before the second pitstop - which rather contradicts Michael's claim that he was only told on the last lap. If the two drivers really had not been allowed to race all afternoon, then Ferrari have been made to look very stupid - not to mention morally dubious. After all, if they had intended Michael to lead over the line, why did they not have the two drivers run around in the formation in which they were intended to finish ?
At the root of all this there remains the question - should they have done it ? Team Orders to ensure the driver with the better chance of winning the title wins the race are nothing new. Ferrari used them in 1979 when Gilles Villeneuve was instructed to play second fiddle to Jody Scheckter. Mercedes regularly used to use team orders in the 50s, with Juan Manuel Fangio would be given a clear run by Stirling Moss. McLaren and Williams have regulrly used them at the end of the season when the title has been closely fought. What was different this time around is that it seems hard to imagine exactly who the Ferrari management think is going to offer any kind of threat to Michael Schumacher this year. The new F2002 Ferrari is the best part of a second a lap faster than anything else on the grid, and thus far it has shown remarkable reliability to boot. It seems hard to believe that the four points that Michael gained on Sunday will in any was compensate for the damage done to his, and Ferrari's public image. Michael's attempts to play down his part in the affair are disingeneous. It is, I concede, quite possible that he was merely following orders, but the idea that he could not simply have chosen to hang behind Barrichello and run in second is nonsense. One could argue that Schumacher had to obey team orders just as Barrichello did, but the idea that Michael would face the sack if he had refused to accept a 'gifted' win is ludicrous. The team, after all, would be shooting themselves in the foot to let go of their number one driver - and a driver with a substantial lead in the world championship to boot.
Some less enlightened folks were calling for a ban on team orders. It is understandable, in the wake of events in Austria, but it is misguided. For one, it is unenforceable. If such a ban had been in place in Austria, Ferrari could easily have contrived to make Barrichello hand Schumacher the lead in a less obviously staged way. And then we would never have known that Barrichello was the quicker man that day. We would have been deluded into believing that Schumacher beat him fair and square. In any case -are team orders in themselves such bad things. It makes sense for a team to order a driver to let their team mate through if the pit stop situation just happens to have left the drivers momentarily out of sync. Indeed Ralf Schumacher's refusal to let Montoya through at Magny Cours last year when demonstrably slower, and in any case needing to make a pit stop, earned him the considerable consternation of the Williams team, who aren't usually in favour of team orders. Nobody, too, can seriously claim not to understand why Eddie Jordan imposed team orders when his cars were running one-two at Spa in 1998. They were on the verge of their very first race victory, and they certainly didn't want it spoiled by their two drivers running into each other. None of these circumstances though, really seemed to apply at Spielberg on Sunday.
Behind the Ferrari procession, there was a race going on. The Williams boys were very much the second team all weekend. Ralf Schumacher did outqualify his brother, but never got near him in the race. Juan Pablo Montoya was a long way from the pace, even of his team mate, but superior strategy and some quick lappery in the pitstop periods put him ahead in the race, and so he claimed the final podium place. Kimi Raikkonen was again the quicker of the two McLaren drivers, but again failed to finish, with his engine letting go after just four laps. Coulthard had a thoroughly uninspired weekend, qualifying behin dboth Saubers and finishing a disappointing sixth, behind the surprisingly competitive Jordan of Giancarlo Fisichella. Takuma Sato had a far less enjoyable time in his Jordan. After the end of the first safety car period, Nick Heidfeld lost control of his Sauber in a very big way on the run up to turn two. His car seemingly failed to slow down at all and slid sideways into Sato's Jordan at great speed. Initially all seemed fine. Sato and Heidfeld both waved their arms and apeared to be ok. The relief quickly turned to fear when it became apparent that Sato couldn't get out of his car. Memories of Schumacher's smashed legs at Silverstone in 1999 came to mind. When the medical team appeared to be trying to start Sato's heart by the side of the track, many began to fear the worst. The ambulance duly appeared and took him to the medical centre, where thankfully it later emerged that he had suffered no significant injuries. It was ironic that Sato, who has been off the road more than anyone else all season, and has looked frankly out of his depth, was completely blameless this time around.
Jacques Villeneuve had something of a return to form, on the 20th anniversary of the death of his legendary father at Zolder. He ran as high as third, and might have finished fifth but for a ten second penalty for hitting Frentzen on the first lap and a last lap engine failure. His team mate Panis had qualified well, but only figured at all in the race by blowing his engine in a big way on the pit straight and bringing out the safety car.
It was a tale of what might have been over at Arrows too. They qualified well - making it onto the sixth row of the grid. Unfortunately their race was effectively over by the end of the first lap. Bernoldi eliminated himself by running into the back of his team mate at the first corner. Frentzen survived that knock, but ended up at the back of the field when he received a second tap at the second corner from Jacques Villeneuve. He then spun while chasing Irvine's Jaguar and did not finish the race.
On Sunday, Sato and Heidfeld provided a stark reminder that Formula One remains a dangerous business. Drivers have always accepted that this is an intrinsic part of their sport - they accept that driving at speeds of around 200mph can never be truly safe in the conventional sense. They see it as something they are willing to accept - a Faustian bargain in which they get the chance to prove themselves the fastest man in the world, but must face the possibility that they may be removed from that world at any moment. But what is the point in risking one's life in a procession organised by a multinational corporation whose sole aim is to maximise the statistical success of their racing team ? They used to call it Grand Prix Racing. The last word, it would seem, no longer applies to the drivers of the two fastest cars in the world.
To return to racing lines.