The Hockenheim team orders saga was far from over on Sunday, since the World Motor Sport Council has the power to change the result of the German GP.
Thus Fernando Alonso could yet lose his victory, and if that happens, Rob Smedley’s on-air apology to his driver will be the damning evidence.
In essence the stewards of the meeting could not levy a financial penalty greater than $100,000 on the day, and they preferred not to take the responsibility of a more controversial decision that changed the result in any way. However, in referring the matter to the WMSC they are in effect indicating that they believe there should be a much greater penalty.
That could involve a bigger fine, a change to the results (even though they were declared official on Sunday night), and/or possibly a form of suspended sentence, such a race ban for the team should it be found guilty of a similar offence. An WMSC hearing would also send out a signal to all the other teams.
Ferrari’s argument is obviously that it did not implement team orders, and that the team just gave Felipe Massa information of which he acted of his own accord. The debate will perhaps come to the fact that what is the difference between a driver being told to cede a place in a specific instance, or being party to a standard arrangement to the effect that when told the other driver is faster, he is expected to make the decision to move over.
One Ferrari man told me last night that Felipe understands the rules and if he doesn’t like it he can leave, just as someone else – Rubens Barrichello – did a few years ago. He pointed out that just as Massa had helped Raikkonen in 2007 so Kimi had helped Felipe in 2008.
Both those incidents of course occurred in the last or next to last races of the season. When the team order rule was introduced by Max Mosley it was made clear that it would not apply in that situation, and everyone has always understood that. The whole point was to stop this sort of thing happening in the middle of the year. Massa was (and is) still in the title fight, albeit only mathematically.
In essence the evidence the radio messages that the viewing public at home also heard, although there was apparently some earlier traffic on the same subject that was not broadcast.
Rob Smedley initially told Massa, “Fernando is faster than you, can you confirm that you understand that message?”
Everyone in the paddock and watching at home had a pretty good idea of what those words implied, but Ferrari’s argument is that there nothing sinister behind them.
The big problem is that after the pass was made Smedley said, “Good lad, well done, sorry.”
With Rob saying that, and Felipe making his ceding of the lead oh so obvious (as Rubens did in Austria 2002), the pair have in effect dropped Ferrari in it.
That apology clearly caught the attention of the stewards, and it’s going to be a key part of the investigation by the World Motor Sport Council. Indeed Smedley was called to see the stewards, along with the drivers, in order to explain what he meant when he apologised. We can guess that the only thing he could have told them that he was apologising for not providing a faster car…
One interesting aspect to the affair is that as far as I could tell, neither Alonso nor Stefano Domenicali majored on the fact that Vettel was not far behind –and that Massa in effect should have either got a move on or let Fernando past – by way of justification. It’ll be interesting if they try to use that now.
What happens next is the fascinating question, because in essence it is the role of FIA President Jean Todt to decide how and when the WMSC will deal with the matter. The next scheduled meeting in Como in early September, just before the Italian GP.
Clearly there will be some urgency to get it dealt with earlier, but it could prove hard for Todt to convene the WMSC in the August break when its various members will inevitably be on holiday. However he has already gained something of a reputation for wanting to resolve things quickly.
This is something of a step into the unknown for the Frenchman, as this is the first big F1 scandal to land in his lap, whereas such events had become a matter of routine for his predecessor Max Mosley.
Then of course there is the complication of his past involvement with Ferrari, his specific involvement in team orders that led to the implementation of Article 39.1 in the first place, and of course his personal relationship with Massa, who was first brought into the team by Todt.
He’s going to have to walk a tightrope as this affair unfolds. It’s going to be very hard for him to be seen as impartial, however honourable his intentions.
Earlier this year Todt lost his rag with me after I’d queried him at a press conference over the Stefan GP affair, based on the fact that his son Nicolas managed a driver who had the chance of being test driver for the team.
He didn’t like the suggestion that he had been influenced in any way by having an inside track on what was going on, even though I had actually made the point in print that he’d made the correct call in not allowing the team in.
Understandably he’s ultra sensitive to such scenarios, but given the many connections that he’s made during his long career, and his son’s own high profile involvement, it was inevitable that there would be perceived conflicts of interest.
Todt has made it clear that he will not play the sort of “hands-on” role that Mosley used to play, and once WMSC proceedings start, he will take a step back. But the fact is he is in the loop. Indeed he was apparently a visitor to the stewards’ room in Bahrain, Monaco and Silverstone this year, presumably having a good look at what was going on. Intriguingly the last two races also featured controversial incidents in which he took an interest.
The other fascinating aspect to all this is that it comes on the back of the safety car saga in Valencia and the drive through penalty that Alonso received in Silverstone. Ferrari made its displeasure with decisions in race control only too clear, and now for a third race in a row Fernando and the team have found themselves in the middle of controversy.
After perhaps saying too much in Valencia, Alonso has since tried to avoid stirring up trouble by blandly repeating a mantra along the lines of “the stewards are always right.”
I wonder if he really believes that today…