Analysis: Team orders row revives age-old F1 debate

By Alan Baldwin - Analysis

LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One is back on familiar territory just when teams seemed to be making a real effort to put the fans and the sport before their own private interests.

Viewers around the world, many outraged by what they had seen in Sunday's German Grand Prix, will have woken up on Monday to sports pages filled with tales of fraud and a Ferrari 'fix'.

That is a moot point, given that the previous lows include last year's revelation that Renault's Brazilian, Nelson Piquet, had been ordered to crash deliberately into a wall in Singapore in 2008 to help team mate Fernando Alonso win the race.

This season, unlike recent ones, has been remarkably free of intrigue and paddock politics, with the emphasis on some thrilling racing.

Until Sunday, that is, when Ferrari were fined $100,000 and left facing possibly more serious punishment for using banned 'team orders' in telling Brazilian Felipe Massa to let Alonso win.

The 'team orders' furor has revived a debate about the very soul of the sport.

Cynics might argue that the soul is neither pure nor particularly easy to locate, given that the billion-dollar series is increasingly determined to leave its geographical origins behind for new circuits in unfamiliar locations.

The problem is the old conundrum over whether Formula One is primarily about the teams or drivers, entertainment or business.

It is both, of course, but there are those -- usually the people who pay the bills -- who have long argued that the teams and their commercial interests must come first.

LIKE LIGHTBULBS

The late McLaren boss Teddy Mayer once said drivers were just "interchangeable lightbulbs -- you plug them in and they do the job."

In the 'good old days', and not even that far back, some drivers used to have it written into their contracts that they were the number two, and that could have meant even handing over a car.

For most present-day fans, the sport is called motor racing for a reason. They want to see a real race between real rivals. Formula One -- particularly at a time of global financial hardship -- does not want to alienate its audience.

"The show is what generates the fans; the fans are what generates the sponsors, and the sponsors generate sponsorship which allows us to run the teams," Mercedes GP managing director Nick Fry said after Sunday's race.

"They are the customers at the end of the day, and we have got to put on a good show."

Ferrari, effectively the Italian national team, are synonymous with Formula One and boast an unrivalled 60-year pedigree. They did not get that without being adept at looking after number one.

A Massa victory would have been emotional, coming a year to the day since his near-fatal accident in Hungary, but such sentiment was not allowed to influence the decision.

SCHUMACHER SUPPORT

Michael Schumacher, the seven times champion who regularly benefitted from team decisions in the past, including a notorious episode in Austria in 2002 that led to a ban on such orders, completely agreed with his former employers' actions.

"I have been criticized in the past for exactly that and I understand 100 percent and I would have done exactly the same if I were in their situation," the German told the BBC.

"I can see in the years that we did it, because we were leading so much, people thought it was unnecessary. I can agree on that in a way," added the 41-year-old winner of 91 races.

"But in principle I fully cannot. I agree with what's going on, you have to do it in a way that's maybe nice and not too obvious, but there's only one target and that's winning the championship."

McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh, who took part in a fans' forum earlier this month to get 'closer' to the public, refused to join the condemnation of Ferrari but was clearly concerned.

In other words, disenchantment with the sport is not good for any team.

"I think having our drivers racing, in the longer term, is a healthy thing to do for this team," he told reporters.

(Editing by Stephen Wood. To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)