The three title rivals and their team-mates will be under the microscope even more than usual at this weekend's United States Grand Prix as motor sport chiefs prepareto get tough on team orders.
Ferrari, Williams and McLaren have been warned that any false moves here, or in the final race of the season in Japan, could see Michael Schumacher, Juan Pablo Montoya or Kimi Raikkonen stripped of the title. The teams believe that at such a late stage in the season it is perfectly proper for Rubens Barrichello, Ralf Schumacher and David Coulthard to aid their team-mates by moving over to let them through on the track. But FIA, the sport's world governing body, which banned team orders in the wake of Ferrari's farce in Austria last season when Barrichello was ordered to hand victory to Schumacher so early in the campaign, are preparing to take a hard line.
"Any evidence of team orders will be put in front of the stewards, and I mean any evidence," the FIA president, Max Mosley, said. "The wording of the regulation made in October last year was done with the agreement of the teams. This will be strictly applied.
"They have already approved a hard line on team orders and the FIA is determined to see it through for the good of the sport. It's not just a case of reacting to the blatant use of team orders, we will be looking at everything. The FIA stewards can draw inferences from circumstances and take whatever action they think necessary. We do not want the teams to have any illusions about where we stand on this.
"There have been comments from teams that this is not a black and white issue but everyone knows when they have crossed the line as far as team orders are concerned."
Mosley's stance would appear to rule out teams delaying one of their drivers with a long fuel stop, and even a driver "error" will be scrutinised.
Team orders have long been a part of the sport and Coulthard rode shotgun for his former team-mate, Mika Hakkinen, during the Finn's epic end-of-season battles with Michael Schumacher in 1998 and Eddie Irvine in 1999. But any repeat by the Scot to aid Raikkonen could cost his team-mate the championship. The teams believe there is a grey area between what constitutes team orders and team tactics but know they must stop short of illegal actions.
"If you've got two drivers in the last race and one can win the world championship, you don't want the other guy getting in the way," Ferrari's technical director, Ross Brawn, said. "I think that's legitimate. If the other guy then tries to take an action which improves his team-mate's position beyond staying out of the way, that's possibly going over the mark."
* Alex Zanardi returned to action Thursday, two years after losing both legs in a crash. Driving a modified BMW 320i touring car, Zanardi practised at Monza in preparation for a FIA European Touring Car Championship race in October.Reuse content