What is fair play?

“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I think I prefer the explanation of the 1950s comic duo Michael Flanders and Donald Swan who sang is their gloriously outdated ditty “The English”, that anyone who is not English just cannot understand.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.”

32 thoughts on “What is fair play?

  1. Surely Williams is not out testing at the moment because the sporting regulations for 2009 say the following?


    c) No track testing may take place between the start of the week preceding the first Event of the Championship and 31 December of the same year.

  2. Respecting the rules, sometimes has perverse and unsporting consequences. For example, Williams should know well enough about the letter of the law. In 2003 the Michelin nonsense were Michelin were, shall we say, gently reminded about the letter of the law.

    Williams went apopleptic, and perhaps justifiably so since the letter of the law was a bit ridiculous.

    And so it is here where the letter of the law is a bit peverse. It is silly that a 40 year old driver, so long out of the sport cannot have at least one day to familiarise himself with quite different technologies. It is peverse that a teenage rookie cannot have a familiarisation day.

    Williams can point out that this is just ‘the rules’, rules agreed to by all parties. But sporting means being reasonable in the face of absurdity. Williams have taken an utterly literal position on the testing agreement. As Ferrari and Bridgestone took a perversely literal position during the Michelin mess.

    Interesting also, is to go backwards and look at who it was that nixed the Alequersuari test. Was that Williams as well? Ferrari okayed it apparently and no doubt FOTA wouldn’t have lost sleep over it.

    Ferrari’s website ‘statement’ is not something I terribly want to see from the team I love. But I also think the strength of negative feeling toward Williams goes deeper than a one day test for Schumacher.

    Still, who cares really, I damn well can’t wait to see what the geriatric Schumacher can manage. God help the internets if he shows Raikkonen a pair of cowboot boot clad heels.

  3. Yeah, i feel that Williams is right too. Simple fact of the matter is, as good of a driver as Michael is and with all due respect to the unfortunate accident which Massa suffered, you have to look at the Toro Rosso camp. Jaime Alguersuari has only tested in a straight line prior to his Hungary debut, and while its fair to argue that he’s actively racing racing cars(FR3.5) unlike Michael, Michael is not what you’d call a couch potato, He regularly seeks other activities to occupy his fitness.

  4. > 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…

    To my knowledge, most, if not all EU bodies are either in Brussels (Belgium) or in Strasbourg (France), while only world-wide institutions like the International Criminal Court are based in The Hague (Netherlands).

  5. Good one, but in one argument, it was told that Jaime did not make a ‘legal’ request to the teams to test before sitting on a car for his first race! Don’t know about it though!!
    If it was true Jaime had requested and was denied of testing, then Schumi should also not get any mileage. But Ferrari’s statement just undermines the team.
    Anyway, as a Schumi fanatic, I am sure he don’t need much mileage to prove his negative critics wrong!!

  6. The recent cricket demonstrates that the Australians definitely have it. It’s very much considered ‘not on’ when the English crowd have gone a bit far in teasing their captain Ricky Ponting.

    There again you could sign up to the idea that, despite the loudly stated difference, barely a cigarette paper separates our two nations, culturally speaking.

  7. Williams is not testing because that would be breaking the regulations. The testing ban is not up to a team’s discretion.

    The Formula 1 Sporting Regulations (2009) say: “No track testing may take place between the start of the week preceding the first Event of the
    Championship and 31 December of the same year.” (There are three rather limited exceptions.)

  8. I must confess to being astonished by Ferrari’s reaction to this. My ghast has never been so flabbered!

    To accuse Williams, arguably the most honest team in the history of the sport, is a nonsense.

    As you so rightly say Joe, it is the red team who are not playing by the rules here.

    I know MS is not a man reknowned for playing by the rules but I would have thought that someone of his stature in the sport wouldn’t have allowed Ferrari to make this request simply because it makes him look like a bit of a whelk.

  9. Nice quotes, I especially like this one
    “And they practice beforehand which ruins the fun!”.
    In this case, however, practice would also reduce the risk of a serious accident, this is why I think both drivers should have been allowed to test at least once.

    But Williams is right in one way, this way it is at least consistent and fair.

    I expect even the regular test drivers of all teams did not get a lot mileage, and most of the cars have changed a lot since of the beginning of the season, so even they, in case of a driver change, should get a test.

  10. This definition from the Paris-based International Fair Play Committee may be helpful:

    “…. every year the CIFP confers awards in three categories:

    1. For an act of fair play, which cost or could have cost the victory to a contender who sacrificed or compromised his chances of winning by complying not only with the written rules of the sport, but also with the ‘unwritten’ ones.

    2. A general attitude of sportsmanship all along a sports career, marked by an outstanding and constant spirit of fair play.

    3. An activity aimed at promoting fair play: organization of national or local campaigns, lectures, books, articles, reports or comments in the media.”

    So it is completely subjective – but widely understood.
    A pity about Ferrari’s attitude as it appeared that under Domenicali, the brutal Todt approach had been considerably softened.

    Of course, it is possible (probable?) that the Ferrari response came from a level above Domenicali…..

  11. Don’t think Mrs. Humphry’s argument holds much water these days. Are Ferrari not the most popular team by a wide margin? Ferrari’s “irascibility” has been on display for years with no apparent effect on it’s polularity.

  12. So why is Schumacher really being brought back in? One view is that it is an act of charity. Others argue, of course, that it will be “great for the sport”. But either way lots of us think it’s a distraction at best. There actually is a championship thing going on, the outcome of which is not in the least certain at this point. Unfortunately, all the current contenders are generally considered “nice guys”, not jerks. Maybe that is the problem.

    Ferrari, “the key to Formula One” as some like to say, would like everyone to forget about that last bit. Massa was in seventh place when he got conked. Räikkönen is even deeper in the hole. And The Key To Formula One itself, though officially in third place, is looking to get passed by McLaren before the year is out as things stand now. It doesn’t help that the team was not prescient enough to have a third driver on salary that it can risk in backup mode.

    So that leaves a grandstand move. Not much in the way of “fair play” there. It diminishes what the actual racers are trying to do, and it diminishes Schumacher as well by reminding us that he is the classic aging jock, fat and morose on the sidelines.

    Of course, the latter may actually redeem himself by making podium. It’s a bit of a stretch but Räikkönen just got there. And if so, what would that have to do with the championship? My math says that if Schumacher were to win all the remaining races (in a Ferrari, no less), and Button/Webber/Vettel/et al were to call in sick for each and every one, he would still end up in a tie with Button, and Ferrari would likely still be in third.

    Big deal. Ferrari squeezing him into a cockpit means that at the extreme most he can act as a spoiler in what has most glaringly not been a year of The Key To Formula One. Citing “fair play” is a bit rich, especially coming from a pair with the history of Ferrari and Schumacher.

  13. I find it hysterical that Ferrari are complaining about Williams not playing fair. Could this possibly be the same Ferrari who had a deal with the FIA that allowed them to veto other team’s technology? Could this be the same Ferrari that makes $80 million more for winning the same championship as any other team?

    The fair play comment amazed me but the final part of their statement where they were complaining that Williams were sticking to the letter of the rules defies belief. Must be tough when you are not used to having the same set of rules as everyone else.

  14. A little beside the main point, but I’ve always thought that gloating is a near synonym for schadenfreude. Ok, we don’t have an abstract noun for taking pleasure in others’ misfortunes, but then we don’t go in for the wordsquashingtogether in the same way as the Germans

  15. As others have noted, taking the moral high ground on “fair play” is a bit rich coming from a team which has had advantages denied to other teams in the past. And it would be a bit perverse to deny a test to a new driver who had never driven an F1 car except in a straight line with some drivers expressing concern about the safety risk this imposed, but give one to a seven times world champion (I know this wasn’t Ferrari’s doing, but even still it would be very strange). I think Ferrari have done themselves a disservice by descending into name calling.

    That said, I think it would make sense to allow a driver coming into a seat during the season to be allowed a day or so of familiarisation with the car, but I can see there would need to be a set of regulations to ensure that the test day was about driver familiarisation, not about testing new components. Perhaps something along the line of a day with the same spec car as the previous race.

    As to fair play, as an Aussie, I think England demonstrated it in the last Ashes test by allowing Manou to substitute for Haddin after the latter broke his finger after the teams were announced. They were entitled to say Australia had to play with the named team, but did the right thing. And I think the right thing would have been to allow Jaime a test day. But given that he didn’t get one, I don’t think Schumacher should get one just because he’s a bigger name.

  16. Maybe fair play can be defined as the vague sense of rightness agreed upon by the masses – anything that gets the crowd turned against you could be called a move against fair play.

    I’m siding with Williams. Did it only suddenly occur to Ferrari that no-testing is a dumb rule? There is a clear ban, and the potentially-best-ever-driver should get no exception if a driver who had never turned a lap in an F1 car didn’t get one. Change the rule in 2010!

    Ferrari name-calling. Piquet Jr issuing statements. What’s with all the whining?

  17. Joe

    I totally agree with Red Bull and Williams stance, however, can you clarify this:

    [quote]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. [/quote]

    Looking at the sporting regulations, testing is banned? Maybe I’m reading the sporting regs incorrectly…

  18. Both Ferrari and the thumbs-down teams are right, they both followed the letter of the rule. There’s any place on the sports regulations stating that no team can request a waiver under the unanimous decision of the remaining teams….Both Williams and Red Bull have their right to deny the waiver, period!
    The only thing you may criticize though is the lack of teamship showed by Williams and Red Bull, IMO they had nothing to lose by helping a living F1 champ to get used to the F60. So why don’t say OK?
    Ferrari was extremely rude, unpolite criticising Williams. He doesn’t deserve that. But beyond rules and rights there’s some sort of code of “chivalry” that involves goodwill and a helping hand in moments of difficulty (just look at Massa’s face for God sake….). I would not like to see Williams getting a thumbs down from Ferrari in the event he really need some sort of waiver..in the end it is part of the human nature; help me now, I need it, I will help you later..

  19. All true, but once again politics and rhetoric are getting in the way of reality. I’m really looking forward to seeing where MS fits in. I’m far from a MS fan, but I’ll be as sad if he’s a dismal also-ran as I will be if he walks every race. What concerns me about Ferrari’s response to Williams is that it suggests that they’ll be willing to wheedle and whine Michael to the front in the races, in any way possible. And that will dilute the pure racing spectacle of old master v. young guns. Schumacher’s reappearance could knock the team off the wagon and back into their old ways overnight, just when Domenicali seemed to be having such a positive effect.

  20. Joe – excellent post. & gfehr – exactly!
    I do wonder if Schumacher has been spending time before the mirror, practising his winking and pointing, in case he scores a podium?

  21. Joe, your’re totally right.
    Ferrari has absoluteley no right to complain. They had a opportunity to show sportsmanship and say: “Okay, we understand Williams’s position. No hard feelings… see you in Valencia.”

    If I were Wiliams, i’d mention Ferrari’s tendency to grab the whole arm when you give the little finger. It would’ve been a massive test if Schumacher was allowed to drive the F60 maybe with new parts on the car. And that would’ve been very unsporting. Not in Ferrari’s view maybe but in mine 🙂

  22. Ferrari don’t do themselves any favours when they make hypocritical statements about teams like Williams. I am not a Team fan i am a driver fan and it is very difficult being a fan of a driver who is in a team that does seem to have some swing with the F1 authorities.
    Surly Ferrari should have just taken the rejection on the chin? this would have at lest terned the heat down a bit…but it is being run by a nice guy now and…well…F1 can’t really live with out them. If they did not get their way on occasion they might leave F1 – and that would be like noddy leaving toy town…it sucks, but it’s true.

    Still think this testing ban goes too far and the floors are coursing some serious trouble. The teams should all be aloud to test their rookie drivers and the oldies…who are still younger than me 🙂


    ps, in case anyone is confused : i can tolerate and enjoy Schumacher and Hamilton racing hard and ruthless…and being happy to bend a few rules; but Ferrari and McLaren get my goat up with their ways of operating sometimes…

  23. In F1 it’s never a matter of either…, or…. It’s always both…, and….

    So, both Williams and Ferrari are correct, but once again they all miss the point. What happened to common sense? Both Alguersuari and Schumacher should have been allowed to acquaint themselves with the new technology before trying to compete in a Grand Prix.

    A proper test would have helped Alguersuari to look less like a total novice totally out of his depth in F1, and Schumacher testing the F60 at Fiorano would have added even more to the spectacle of his return to F1.

    And once again F1 simply ignored the fans. Michael testing at Fiorano would have been covered by every newspaper across the globe, fanning the publicity for the next 7 Grands Prix, all of them struggling to sell tickets in the current economic climate.

    But what do we get? Michael testing a kart in Italy! Whoopee! It’s like a prospective Ferrari buyer test driving a Fiat 500 when he hopes to buy a Ferrari 599.

    With a new Concorde agreement signed, be prepared for less common sense, and even less fair play between the teams. Contracts are all about the letter of the agreement and not the spirit of the agreement.

    Go Schumi!


  24. We didn’t get Schumacher testing a kart. We got Schumacher and Ferrari circumventing the testing ban by testing a two year old car.

    The teams knew when they agreed to a testing ban that they could at some point be without one of their drivers so it was up to them to make sure thir reserve driver got some experience before the start of the season. If. like Ferrari, they thn choose not to use their reserve driver there is no point then trying to change the rules to suit.

  25. Steven

    Whilst I agree that the teams should have given their reserve drivers time, what Ferrari did was exactly what torro Rosso did – they asked a question – Why are you not having a go a Toro Rosso – unlike Ferrari, they DIDN’T have to replace their driver? Im with the teams for saying no – why should they give anyh advantage away, but you just seem to have a bee in your bonnet about only 1 team making such a request.

    Now as for circumventing the rules.

    How is MS driving a 2 year old car circumventing the testing ban? He’s not an F1 driver – yet… have a look at the FIA rules (I have) and see what they are and aren’t allowed to do and then tell me what rule has he circumvented?

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