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Formula One

Thursday, May 15

Subtle team orders still exist

SPIELBERG, Austria -- Formula One has banned 'team orders,' but old habits die hard and sometimes not at all.

World champion Michael Schumacher returned Thursday to Austria's A1 Ring where last year he was jeered and booed after 'winning' a race dominated by Brazilian teammate Rubens Barrichello.

Ferrari told Barrichello to move over for Schumacher, as they had done the previous year in Austria as well, and the crowd and global television audience took it badly.

So badly that the governing International Automobile Federation (FIA) announced, after surveying public opinion on the internet, that team orders would no longer be allowed after being part of the sport for decades.

"Team orders which interfere with the race result are prohibited," the FIA said last October.

But can the new rule be policed?

"Whether it's enforceable or not, I don't know," said Schumacher when asked about the new rule at a news conference at the A1 Ring. "Certainly the obvious team orders will be enforceable and we made a clear statement from our point of view on how we are going to do things. There is nothing else to add."

The in-your-face orders are certainly gone and Ferrari will not make the same mistake twice.

But there are more subtle ways, a slightly longer pitstop for example, to achieve the desired result. Nobody imagines for a moment that team orders have really been laid to rest.

Ironically, Schumacher would have a stronger case for the use of team orders at Spielberg on Sunday than he has had in the past.

Whereas in 2002 and 2001 he arrived in Austria in the championship lead, this time he trails McLaren's young Finn Kimi Raikkonnen by four points after five races.

"I think it's impossible to get rid of team orders and it should be down to the team to decide whatever they think is necessary to do," said Schumacher's younger brother Ralf, driving for Williams. "I don't have a problem with what happened here last year, I felt it was the right thing to do."

Bookmakers and some spectators may disagree, but any fan who follows the sport closely knows that team orders have always existed.

Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine whose five titles Schumacher equalled last year, would think nothing of passing a teammate's car if his packed up during a race.

Championships have been decided by drivers obeying their teams and not overtaking or relinquishing a position when requested.

"Usually we don't have team orders in our team but I think it's not really possible to ban them," said Sauber's German driver Nick Heidfeld.

Changes to the rules after Ferrari's domination, Schumacher's supremacy and viewer disaffection over what happened in Austria have also made it harder to determine what strategy is being followed during a race.

Drivers now have to start with whatever fuel remains from qualifying, leading to cars lining up on the grid with different fuel loads and varying performance.

"We don't have team orders in our team or any favours going any particular way but there could be scenarios in a race where you are on a different strategy," said Jaguar's Australian driver Mark Webber.

"It's quite a powerful tool for you to move out of the way for your team mate to make your strategy work or a better situation for the whole team. I think it can happen, it's still a team sport at the end of the day."

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