Monday, 26 July 2010
Anyone else think this stinks? I thought so.
If you cut through the bluster and navigate your way around the blasé attitudes of the battle hardened members of Formula One’s travelling circus, the underlying feeling among the stakeholders of the sport must be that events at Hockenheim on Sunday marked a dark day for its integrity.
Let’s disregard the fact that I have a vested interest owing to the fact that I attempt to make a living from writing about it. I am one of the millions of people around the world who share a passion for Formula One, and the question I have found myself agonising over in the wake of Ferrari’s antics is this: Does this passion outweigh all feelings of what is right and wrong? Does it blinker me in such a way that I shrug my shoulders, seemingly in unison with many paddock insiders, and accept that this is how it goes? The short answer is that no, it doesn’t.
I was annoyed when I realised that Ferrari were engineering a situation that would lead to a manufactured change of leader. I cringed while Fernando Alonso, Stefano Domenicali and the team’s press office treated the entire F1 world like fools with lie after pathetic lie as they squirmed in front of the media. These feelings were to be expected after what had happened, what I didn’t expect, however, was having to watch respected experts from the paddock, notable members of the racing fraternity, attempt to justify it. Yes, they said, the team had contravened article 39.1 of the sporting regulations by instigating team orders that interfered with the result, but it didn’t really matter. This is just the way it goes in the “business” that is modern Formula One. This ridiculous attempt to justify what in any other sport in the world would be called match fixing, was the aspect that disturbed me the most.
The BBC received a number of scathing emails from various members of the public on its F1 forum. David Coulthard, a man who I hold in the highest regard for his usual no nonsense attitude in the face of his excitable colleagues, brushed off the concerns of the correspondents by advising us not to get “all tabloid” about a situation that “has gone on for years”. Was he being serious? The overwhelming majority of fans of the sport felt that they had been cheated, the fans who not only pay the wages of the pundits, but also of every other person involved at any level of the sport. These people, if they felt anything like I did, felt as though Ferrari had violated their rights as fans to watch a fair battle between two evenly matched drivers. The viewers wanted the people who are paid to enhance their viewing experience to listen to these concerns and take note. What they got instead was a verbal pat on the head from a bunch of analysts acting as if they were telling their younger siblings that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. As for the ridiculous assertion that it is ok because it has been going on for years, so have assault and fraud, and yet I don’t ever recall ‘it’s been going on for years’ being used as a successful defence for either.
Somewhere else on Sunday, I was listening to another expert explaining the pressure that was placed on a modern day Grand Prix team to attract sponsorship. This was being cited as a justification for the Scuderia's actions, a statement which was both factually correct and ridiculous in equal measure. Of course, teams need to raise huge sums from sponsors to keep themselves afloat, but a “modern” company places huge emphasis on corporate responsibility, and aligning any brand with a team that have been labelled cheats, whether rightly or wrongly, has become a huge turn off for marketing departments around the world, just ask ING.
In terms of Ferrari, it is evident from the blank spaces on the car, that they are not an organisation which faces the sort of budget constraints which mean that they need to convey a squeaky clean image. However, surely even Ferrari cannot afford to alienate the whole of the watching public who reside anywhere but Italy and Spain. It seems that they have learnt nothing from the battering that their reputation took in the fallout from the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, a race which saw Rubens Barrichello forced to move aside for the Schumacher express to take a similar hollow victory. Michael himself was on hand yesterday to offer his support to his beleaguered former employers, insisting that he would have done the same, as it’s all about winning the World Championship. Erm, yes, we know you would Michael, you already have.
The real irony of the day of course is that while one half of the team made itself look pretty pathetic, the other side, particularly Felipe Massa, covered himself in glory. The way that he handled himself in the face of an impossible situation was full of class. It would have been career suicide for the likeable Brazilian to have disobeyed the order to let Alonso by, but the way he conducted himself afterwards only strengthened the betrayal felt by the neutral observer, especially on a day which marked the anniversary of his horrific accident at Budapest.
I have always found Domenicali to be one of the more likeable characters in the sport, and whilst I’d like to think that Alonso’s incessant whinging had led to yesterday’s call, there is obviously a greater degree of structure around the arrival at such decisions at an organisation the size of Ferrari. How the decision was actually made is pretty immaterial, the whole team lost a lot of respect this weekend, and not just by the decision to make their drivers switch places. Their biggest mistake was thinking that the viewing public were stupid enough to believe that they had not just witnessed them doing it.
My seven year old son watched the race, he is mad about F1. Even if he doesn’t realise his dream of competing in it when he is older, he will at least be one of the fans who will be propping up the next generation of superstars with his hard earned. He asked me after the race why I was cross about Alonso winning, and he genuinely didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I thought hard about the best way of explaining the events without dampening his enthusiasm, and I couldn’t think of any way to dress it up. “Because they cheated, son” I replied reluctantly, and from the look in his eye at that moment, it was as if I had told him that Father Christmas doesn’t exist. That is why I will struggle to forgive Ferrari for this sorry episode, and also why I think that the members of the F1 paddock who shrugged their shoulders and brushed it off should be ashamed of themselves.
Formula One is not a business, it’s a sport, and while it is of course undeniable that teams must generate the revenue with which to operate, this should never come at the expense of the enjoyment of the fans. There would be no Formula One without them and make no mistake, the fans are angry about this, mostly because of the human element surrounding Massa. Not only were we deprived of a fair result at Hockenheim, we had one of the greatest feel good moments in the modern era of the sport snatched from under our noses and replaced with a stench of rotten stallion.