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Ferrari team orders: From 'may the best man win' to number one and two

Sebastian Vettel should probably be grateful that Enzo Ferrari is no longer with us. Had the autocratic and irascible team owner still been around, it is unlikely he would have allowed an internal policy that clearly favours Vettel over Kimi Räikkönen.

The current Ferrari management is free to do what it wishes, of course. But in Mr. Ferrari's day, the boss loved to play one driver off against the other. In the opinion of the so-called Old Man, it kept his drivers sharp and operating at their maximum -- even though, in an era when safety had no place on any sporting agenda, it often resulted in their death. Had the phrase 'collateral damage' existed at the time, Ferrari would probably have used it. Ruthless doesn't make a start. So long as a Ferrari won, the Old Man didn't particularly care who was driving.

Niki Lauda leads the pack away as world champion at the 1976 French Grand Prix. Lauda had quietly overcome teammate Clay Regazzoni the previous year without the help of team orders. Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images
That's not to say he didn't have his favourites. When asked the question by British journalists during an audience at Maranello in 1986, Ferrari paused with suitable melodrama before nodding and saying quietly "Collins. A great driver and a generous gentleman".

Even allowing for the crafty Old Man pleasing his audience, there is no question he held Peter Collins dear. The Englishman gave up his slim chance of winning the 1956 championship by voluntarily handing over his car to Juan Manuel Fangio during the final round at Monza to allow the great Argentine, sidelined by broken steering, to go on and win the title. Collins's fatal accident a year later at the Nürburgring Nordschleife somehow enhanced the romantic ideal.

Had Mr. Ferrari been answering German journalists, he might well have nominated Wolfgang von Trips. The aristocrat from the Rhineland, an undoubted favourite of Ferrari, was killed when poised to win the championship at Monza in 1961. Phil Hill felt he was never forgiven by Ferrari even though he had nothing to do with the accident and went on to bring that year's title to Maranello.

By and large, Ferrari let his drivers go racing and sort superiority among themselves. Niki Lauda was never officially accorded Number 1 status and it was Clay Regazzoni who came closest to winning the championship in 1974, Lauda quietly dealing with the amiable Swiss to clinch the title the following year. Lauda knew neither sentiment nor driver superiority played any part in Ferrari's thinking, a point proved in 1976 when Lauda nearly died at the Nürburgring, only to return six weeks later at Monza and find Ferrari had hired Carlos Reutemann - whom Enzo knew Lauda disliked intensely.

If the Old Man had a soft spot, then Gilles Villeneuve could claim to have been closest to it. Not that the feisty little French-Canadian cared about such things, which was one of the reasons -- along with an outrageous talent -- why Ferrari took to him.

When Jody Scheckter joined Ferrari for 1979, this was Villeneuve's second season at Maranello but Scheckter was substantially better paid. And yet there was no thought of Jody being Number 1 even though the South African felt the position was his in all but name. The unspoken rule was that, if free from competition in the later stages of the races, whoever was in front should stay there rather than overtax machinery that tended to be seriously unreliable when compared to today's cast-iron equipment.

Going into the Italian Grand Prix, Scheckter was ahead on points and could clinch the title; Villeneuve needed to win this and the remaining two races to do the same. Yet once in the lead, and despite having Villeneuve pushing him and indicating he was quicker, Scheckter was left to run unhindered by a respectful team-mate. Game, set and match to Ferrari. The Old Man was satisfied and felt sure Villeneuve would have his day.

That day never came. When Ferrari finally produced another car with championship potential in 1982, Didier Pironi was Villeneuve's team-mate. When Pironi went against a private agreement and won the San Marino Grand Prix, there was no reprimand from Ferrari. An outraged Villeneuve swore he would never speak to the Frenchman again; a promise that came tragically true two weeks later when Villeneuve clipped a slower car and was killed while trying to beat Pironi's qualifying time at Zolder.

Enzo Ferrari did not comment until later in the year when, rather uncharacteristically, he admitted: "I was fond of Villeneuve. In my eyes he was one of my family". By which time Pironi had eliminated himself from the lead of the championship with severe ankle injuries caused by a crash in the wet at Hockenheim. At the end of the year, Enzo Ferrari sent Pironi a trophy carrying the inscription: 'Didier Pironi - The True 1982 World Champion'. In other words; a Ferrari driver ought to have won it; that's all that matters. Ferrari's 'May the Best Man Win' policy would die with the Old Man six years later.

Author: Maurice Hamilton

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