Top Stories from the Sports pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, March 27, 1998

A Grand Prix Tradition Is Flagged Down

By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
PARIS - A tradition as old as motor racing will end at the Brazilian Grand Prix on Sunday. For the first time in the sport's history, pacts involving two drivers on the same team on who is allowed to win will be against the rules.

Formula One has always called such deals team orders and gentlemen's agreements, but critics call them cheating and race-fixing. They accuse teams of robbing the public of spectacle and, as bookmakers take more and more bets on Grand Prix racing, money.

The FIA, the governing body of motor racing, decided such deals were against the rules last week in response to complaints by the promoter of the Australian Grand Prix on March 8.

During that race Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard, driving for McLaren-Mercedes, lapped all other cars to finish first and second. Hakkinen led the race until he fell behind Coulthard after pit stop problems. Two laps from the end, Coulthard slowed to let Hakkinen pass him and win the race.

''We had an agreement that the one who arrived first at the first corner at the start of the race wouldn't challenge the other,'' Coulthard said. ''The team explained to me what happened with his pit stop, and I decided to honor the agreement.'' A delighted Hakkinen said: ''Going back in history, I haven't seen many drivers doing things like that.''

Which shows that Hakkinen does not know his history.

Many Formula One milestones were achieved under similar circumstances.

Stirling Moss, one of the greatest British drivers, expressed dismay over the controversy in a phone interview from his home in London.

''This was just an agreement between two drivers who were driving a car that was obviously likely to win the race, and therefore they didn't want to push it harder than they should,'' he said. ''What was remarkable was that David Coulthard - amazing in modern racing - was gentleman enough to stick to the deal. My feeling is that if there were more gentlemen around people wouldn't be so surprised.''

Moss became the first British driver to win a Grand Prix with a British-built car, in 1957 at Aintree, after he took over the Vanwall of his teammate Tony Brooks, during the combined British and European Grand Prix. Moss's own car was eliminated with engine troubles on the 22d lap.

Giving up one's car to the team's number one driver was a common practice at the time, Moss said.

''If my car broke, I'd go into the pits and I'd say to the team manager 'I'd like to take over another car,' and he'd bring the car in,'' he said. ''The same way as when I was with Fangio, and he was number one, if it was worked out that he should win, then he would win.''

Juan Manuel Fangio was for a while Moss's teammate with Mercedes. In 1956, going into the final race, he led by one point for the title over his teammate, Peter Collins. During the race Fangio had a wheel problem on his Ferrari and was forced to withdraw. When Collins pulled into the pits for a tire change on the 35th lap and was told of Fangio's misfortune he immediately chose to give the Argentinean his own car to allow him to become the first man to win four drivers' titles. There was no controversy in either case.

Moss says the change in attitude is a result of television coverage.

''Television has made the sport turn into a business,'' he said, ''and there's no room for being a gentleman when you're in business.''

John Surtees, another former driving champion, said that sponsorship allows teams today to afford two top drivers.

In the past, Surtees said, ''with the exception of certain teams, like Mercedes, you had very specific differences in driver abilities.''

''There were very obviously number ones and number twos purely by performance,'' he said.

Today, he said, if a driver, like Hakkinen, had the pole position, got into the first corner first and turned the fastest lap of the race, he should be able to benefit from such an agreement.

Both he and Moss, however, said that the reaction to the McLaren drivers' cooperation might have been different if it had been done, in Moss's words, ''more discreetly.'' Surtees said that had the drivers crossed the finish line just a fraction apart, it ''would have created a sensational finish.''

In 1955, in just such a finish, Moss became the first British driver to win the British Grand Prix and to this day he is not sure if Fangio, who was then his teammate with Mercedes, allowed him to win. Fangio and Moss lapped the field and then drove together the entire last lap, finishing 0.2 seconds, or half a car's length, apart.

Moss says, ''I still don't know whether Fangio let me win or whether I won myself. Fangio would have known that it was obviously better for Mercedes if I was to win my home Grand Prix. But I asked him, and he said, 'No, no, you were on form and you won the race correctly.'''

But sports evolve. A change of car is now against the rules, unless it is made during an interruption of the race before two laps have run. And cars are designed to fit a driver like a tailored suit.

Following the Melbourne Grand Prix, complaints came mostly from those who bet money on Coulthard.

As a result of the incident, William Hill, the British bookmaker, decided to introduce betting on teams. But this is little help to the more than 500 people who bet on a Coulthard victory in Australia and who complained at what they considered race-fixing.

Moss said some betting did go on in his day. With team orders and gentlemen's agreements, he said, ''motor racing is not the sort of thing one should bet on.''

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