I am off back to Paris by road today and I thought, given the response to what happened at Hockenheim on Sunday, that it would be a good idea to take a step back from the nitty-gritty paint a view of the event with a rather broader brush. I have no doubt that there will be much analysis elsewhere of the technical issues involved. I could write about the duel of fastest laps between the Ferrari drivers in the final laps of the race, as each apparently tried to prove a point. Prior to the change of position on lap 49 Felipe Massa’s best lap was a 1m17.166s. Fernando Alonso’s was a 1m17.012s. The difference was not big enough to allow Alonso to overtake. He could not do it. After the changeover Alonso took his best lap time down to 1m16.770s on lap 51. Massa was clearly dispirited and dropped back towards Vettel, although it was clear that he had the pace to hold off Sebastian if that was what was required. Then towards the end of the race, Felipe seemed to revive and attack and the two Ferrari drivers traded fastest laps. On lap 65 Massa set a 1m16.182s, just slower than Alonso’s 1m16.103s. Alonso could manage only a 1m16.505s on the same lap. On lap 66 Alonso took his best down to 1m15.880s, Massa recorded a 1m16.097s. Vettel ended up trumping the pair of them on the very last lap, but he was clearly not really trying that hard in the final part of the race and set the fastest lap to amuse himself. Prior to that it seemed that he had accepted that track position meant that there was no point in pushing. If one cannot overtake there is not much point in taking unnecessary risks. He took the points. That was all the car was going to achieve. The numbers prove that Alonso was not really quicker than Massa, although that analysis may be skewed by the fact that the leader does not have to scorch away if it is not essential. The art is to win the race at the slowest possible pace, so as not to stress the car more than is absolutely necessary. The fact that Alonso made a lot of noise on the radio about how quick he was is neither here nor there. If he could overtake Massa, he should have done it. Clearly he could not. And when he was allowed to overtake he did not prove conclusively that he had the quicker car.
Long after the race was done and the penalty announced I sat down with the Ferrari press officer Luca Colajanni and we talked the whole thing through, without any emotion involved. From that it became clear that the problem is simply one of the way one looks at the sport. Sebastian Vettel was not a threat to the Ferrari 1-2. He might have been if the car had suddenly improved, but one should not be making such decisions based on ifs and buts. The evidence was that the Ferraris had Vettel under control and Sebastian’s pace suggests that he knew that.
The rancour between Ferrari and the fans is about a clash of philosophies. For the average fan what is important is not just that they watch a straight fight between two competitors, but that the sport itself is portrayed in a good light. Fans are passionate about the sport, about its traditions and they want to be able to say that they are proud of it when challenged by some ping-pong freak or a follower of synchronised swimming. The media may or may not be the representatives of the fans (the fans have no representation without the media) but what motivated the attacks on Alonso after the race was a mixture of two things: one was that many of the sport’s writers are passionate fans; the second was that for the professional journalists this represented a good story. Alonso’s responses to the questions indicated that he feels that all the F1 press are simply hacks looking for a front page lead. He needs to be educated to fully understand why it is that he is not as popular as perhaps he should be given the talents he has.
No real fan can be proud of a sport that allows things like the Ferrari switch at Hockenheim. It compounded the widely-held belief that F1 is a business rather than a sport.
Ferrari believes in certain sporting ideals, but the view is that F1 is a team sport and that the individual must therefore be subjugated for the good of the cause. The cause is to sell more Ferrari road cars, generate better profits for the company and maintain the F1 marketing “tool” by keeping the sponsors happy. One must therefore ask the question: Did Ferrari achieve these goals in Hockenheim? The team management obviously felt that giving Alonso more points than Massa was the right thing to do. One can see that argument. Massa started the race with 67 points and Alonso had 98. A victory for Massa and a failure to score by Alonso would have put the two very close in the championship. There are still eight of the 19 races remaining and so the World Championship remains wide open. Massa took the lead at the start after Vettel aggressively shoved Alonso towards the pitwall. This was the fault of neither driver. Things happen in races and the drivers have to accept them. That’s racing!
The Ferrari argument is that if the team is to have any chance of winning the title this year it is best not to have the drivers splitting the available points between them. Colajanni argued that Massa will be paid back for what he did when – and if – the circumstances allow it. Ferrari’s attitude is really just an attempt to bring order to the chaos of life and control as many elements as possible. But what happens, say, if Alonso slips on a banana skin and breaks his leg? Massa will be less able to offer a challenge because he has been disadvantaged with the Hockenheim manoeuvre. I think it is fair to say that by asking Massa to do what is best for the team, Ferrari is putting all of its eggs in one basket. It may work out and Fernando may sweep to a third title. The theory goes that people will then buy Ferrari road cars and other paraphernalia as a result of his triumph.
I would argue (and did) that what drives sports fans to spend their money on luxuries such as team memorabilia and very fast cars is not the result, but rather the way results are achieved. They will spend more if they feel an engagement with the team. If it makes them feel good.
There are two ways of winning: one can win in a functional sense and one can win in style. This is why I believe Massa is more popular than Alonso, because while Fernando has had all manner of scrapes and question marks during his F1 career, the drive to win has always been a functional one. Winning was the goal and the route taken to get there was not important to him. Massa, on the other hand, has shown that one can be a champion without actually being the World Champion. He showed that in Brazil in 2008. The hard-bitten F1 folks would argue that losing with grace is still losing, but they miss the point that one can win in defeat and lose in victory. What Massa did on Sunday is going to hurt his image in Brazil a great deal, just as Rubens Barrichello was badly damaged by helping Ferrari (and by extension Michael Schumacher) in the old days. Felipe made a huge sacrifice on Sunday and one wonders whether it really will be repaid.
On the other side of the coin, Ferrari blew a great opportunity on Sunday. It would have been the perfect human interest story to have Massa win a race a year to the day after he was nearly killed in Hungary. It would have been a fairytale, and people like fairytales. They like happy endings. This is why film makers for generations have used them. They sell. They make people feel warm and wonderful.
Ferrari’s choice to go down the pragmatic route rather than indulge in a little romance is a sign that the firm is run by people who do what is best for the company, put who at the same time put Ferrari before the sport as a whole. Jean Todt was like that when he was running things at Maranello, but he now has a new job and he has a different attitude. His job now is to protect the sport and I feel that Ferrari’s punishment is not over yet. If one is given a job, one does the best one possibly can in that role. Alonso said that himself on Sunday. So Ferrari should expect Todt to do his FIA job as it should be done.
I have long believed that several of the other top teams have a better understanding than Ferrari of why it is important to always put the sport first. Pull back a little more and one might conclude that the problem is that sporting values and money are impossible bedmates. There is not much that can be done about that. They need one another and so are stuck in a marriage that is not always plain sailing.
The same problem is being seen everywhere in F1. Some believe that F1 is there in order to generate the maximum profits for them. This works as long as they get away with it, but it does not work for the sport. If ever one needed evidence of this one had only to go to Hockenheim. There are six German drivers in F1 today. Vettel is battling for the World Championship, admittedly Michael Schumacher is a shadow of his former self, but one would expect the grandstands to be full all the time. The official crowd figures were little short of disastrous. Two years ago the three-day crowd figure was 240,000, with 115,000 fans present on race day. This year the three-day total was 165,000, with race day boasting just 65,000. And this with six Germans on the grid. The problem is that the tickets are simply too expensive because the businessmen are squeezing the sport too much…
Business and sport at odds as ever…