“Fair play” is a quintessentially English concept. The French do not even have a word for it. They resort to using “le fair-play”, just as the English do not have any word to describe laughing at the misfortunes of others and so use the German “schadenfreude”.
But what is this strange concept of “fair play” that is taught on the playing fields of Eton? How does one define what is “fair play” and what is not? No doubt there is a European Union body somewhere in a Dutch city that has the legal right to define such a term after months of bureaucratic grumbling, but I think I prefer the explanation of the 1950s comic duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swan who sang is their gloriously outdated ditty “The English”, that anyone who is not English just cannot understand.
“And all the world over each nation’s the same. They’ve simply no notion of playing the game. They argue with umpires, they cheer when they’ve won. And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!”
It is just this problem which has caused a kerfuffle in recent days between Williams and Ferrari. Williams refused to agree to a waiver for the gentleman’s agreement between the teams restricting in-season testing in order help Michael Schumacher get up to speed as he returns to F1 with Ferrari as the replacement for Felipe Massa. Williams was not the only team to object but Ferrari’s response was sharp, one might even say rather rude: “Guess who opposed the test with the F60? A team that hasn’t won anything for years and yet didn’t pass over the opportunity to demonstrate once more a lack of spirit of fair play.”
Ferrari clearly felt that Williams was being unfair. Williams felt the opposite.
“While we welcome Michael Schumacher back to F1, the fact is any form of in-season circuit testing is strictly prohibited, a regulation clearly laid out by the FIA and adhered to by all of the teams,” the team said in a statement. “It was for this reason Alguersuari, who drove an F1 car for the first time in Hungary, did not have the opportunity to familiarise himself with the Toro Rosso before he made his race debut. Williams sees no distinction between Alguersuari’s situation and Schumacher’s and feels any deviation from the rule would create a precedent for the future. In a similar situation, Williams would unhesitatingly use its current test driver. For the sake of consistency and fairness, therefore, we oppose Ferrari’s proposal to test ahead of the European Grand Prix.”
So who is being fair and who is not being fair?
I looked in two dictionaries to see if I could come up with a solution. They were not really much help. One says that “fair play” is “a conventional standard of honourable behaviour” while another might go a little further and define the idea as being “the act or fact of abiding by the rules as in sports or games; fairness and honour in dealing with competitors, customers, etc”.
I would argue that “fair play” is more than that. It IS about playing by the rules. It IS about respecting the opposition. But it is also about respect for the sport. One plays by the rules because winning by other means makes the victory worthless. A person who cheats is really only cheating himself or herself because respect only comes from winning by the rules. And self-respect is the same. You can win but if you know that you have cheated the victory does not have the same value. It is all about doing things in the right way.
My feeling is that Williams is right. Why? Well, if you stop and think about it, there is no reason why Williams and Force India should abide by any testing agreement. This was not something imposed by the FIA, but was part of a general agreement between all the teams, as part of their commitment to FOTA. Williams was ejected from FOTA when it decided that it had to enter the World Championship. Thus, in theory at least, Williams could be out testing right now. The team is not doing that. Why? Because there was a deal and it would not be right nor sporting to do otherwise. One can understand the desire of Ferrari to give Michael some mileage in a modern car. There is nothing wrong with the team asking the others if they are happy to let him test. But one should not be unpleasant if a team says no? Mrs Humphry in her Victorian classic “Manners for Men”, published in 1897, has some advice about such behaviour.
“There are many fairly good-tempered men (and women) who evince extreme irritation over games of any kind,” she wrote. “To play with such as these is very disagreeable, and the tendency to irascibility should be firmly checked by those who wish to be popular in society.”