Saturday, December 11, 2010

F1 and the Wisdom of Crowds

The FIA's World Motorsport Council (WMSC) met on Friday this week, and, as anticipated, repealed the ban on team orders in F1. Notably, however, the following qualification was issued: "Teams will be reminded that any actions liable to bring the sport into disrepute are dealt with under Article 151c of the International Sporting Code and any other relevant provisions."

Philosophically, this is interesting, because whilst the FIA are permitting the teams to exercise discretion over the application of team orders, they're also warning them that the type of flagrant manipulation which precipitated the introduction of the original legislation in 2002, will be punished for bringing the sport into disrepute.

If we recall, Ferrari's decision to manoeuvre Michael Schumacher past Rubens Barrichello on the last lap of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, resulted in the drivers being loudly booed by the spectators as they ascended the podium, and in the team management being roundly condemned by the specialist and non-specialist media. Both the spectators and the media constitute a type of crowd, and their reaction to Austria 2002 was clearly damaging to the reputation of F1. This, then, was an example of the Wisdom of Crowds, the capability, under certain conditions, for collections of non-experts to make decisions, or pass judgements, of greater or equal accuracy than those which could be made by individuals.

Friday's statement from the WMSC partially transfers judgement in cases of team orders to the wisdom of such crowds. Trying to capture in legislation the exact conditions under which team orders should be punished, is way too complex, so instead the FIA are, at least partially, ceding judgement to the collective wisdom of paying spectators, television viewers, and the media.

Now, this is clearly still an arrangement open to abuse, for it is the FIA who ultimately have to decide whether the reaction of the spectators and the media is sufficient to entail a breach of Article 151c. This collapses the wisdom of crowds down to the judgement of a smaller group of individuals, whose decisions can be skewed by short-term vested interests. Moreover, Article 151c also entitles the FIA to punish actions which are merely liable to bring the sport into disrepute. Hence, any action which could be seen as setting a precedent, or instigating a trend, that might ultimately bring the sport into disrepute, could be seen to fall under the aegis of this regulation.

Whilst a repetition of Austria 2002 would unambiguously bring the sport into disrepute, and clearly render a team subject to punishment, the key question is whether a repetition of Germany 2010 would also bring the sport into disrepute. There was certainly a media outcry after Alonso was escorted past Massa in this year's race, but a large component of that reaction was attributable to the fact that Ferrari had breached a regulation banning team orders. Subtract that element of things, and Germany 2010 reduces to a borderline case.

One final point. Many commentators and analysts point out that team orders are intrinsic to the history of F1, and that F1 is a team sport. That's certainly true, but in the modern age, F1 is a commercial brand which is sold to the public as a contest between drivers, not a contest between teams. If numerous spectators and viewers are attracted to the sport on that basis, only to be disabused of their delusions mid-race, then such casual viewers have every right to complain that they haven't received the product which was sold to them.

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