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Team orders in Formula 1 – the debate rages on

September 30, 2018

Lewis Hamilton’s victory in this afternoon’s Russian Grand Prix, or more accurately, the manner of his victory, has again brought the discussion about team orders to the fore.

In an effort to maximise every point available to Championship leader Hamilton, Mercedes asked former Williams driver Valtteri Bottas, then leader of the Grand Prix, to move aside and let his team-mate through to add a further seven points to his championship lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.

What we don’t know is whether Hamilton had the pace to challenge Bottas for the win on-track without any team intervention. Bottas’ body language after the event would suggest not, as his demeanour was that of a guy who’d just had a winners trophy unfairly snatched from his grasp.

There aren’t many people (including Hamilton himself) who would disagree with him.

We all want to see the fastest driver on any given Sunday win the Grand Prix fair and square. But it doesn’t always happen like that.

Team orders aren’t new, and neither is the controversy that surrounds them. In 1951, Formula 1’s difficult second season, Ferrari’s Luigi Fagioli was hauled into the pits during the French Grand Prix and ordered to give his car to team-mate Juan Manuel Fangio, then in contention for the World Championship. Fangio would go on to win the Grand Prix and the World Championship, and a disgusted Fagioli quit Grand Prix racing on the spot.

In the 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix, Williams’ own Carlos Reutemann was asked to move aside and let team-mate and World Champion Alan Jones to take the lead from him. He refused, and this led to the feud that was to continue throughout their time together at Williams, and some would argue contribute to both drivers retiring within a year, becoming disenchanted with the sport.

After the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix debacle where race-leader Rubens Barrichello would dramatically slow within sight of the finish line to allow team-leader Michael Schumacher to take the win to extend his already pretty unassailable lead in the World Championship to completely unassailable, team orders were banned following an aggressively hostile reaction by fans both at the A1 Ring and worldwide.

The problem was, that there was no way that the ban could be policed. The kind of staged overtake that we saw between the Ferraris in Austria could be penalised, but if a team chose to back off driver A, choreograph a pitstop, or retire a driver altogether to benefit driver B, then a) Who are the FIA to question whether or not it was necessary for or in the best interests of driver A, and b) how would they know for sure?

Nobody likes team orders, but fans are loosely divided into two camps: Those who think it is an affront to everything that motor racing stands for, and those who accept it as part of what is, after all, a team sport.

I don’t think a two-car Formula 1 can exist without team orders. And as such, I don’t think Mercedes had any choice but to ask their not-in-contention-for-the-championship driver to let their World-Championship-leading driver by.

As upset as Valtteri Bottas might be tonight, would he want his team to lose out on the World Drivers’ Championship by seven or less points come the end of the season, in order to boost his win tally by one? I don’t think he would.

It’s healthy that he doesn’t like being told to give his win away, in the same way that it’s healthy that Lewis Hamilton doesn’t like to be given wins he doesn’t deserve. But do either want Vettel and Ferrari to take the World Championship the whole team have worked so hard towards?

Take Williams in 1986. Their stance on refusing team orders between their two drivers cost them the drivers’ championship as they fought to take points from each other, while McLaren quietly and steadily piled up the points for Prost, who sneaked in at the death to take the title.

In the aftermath of the 1986 Australian Grand Prix, with the championship trophy sitting in the McLaren motorhome, had you asked Sir Frank if he was still confident that no team orders was the best approach for the team, would he have said yes? We know for sure his mind was changed by 1991 when Riccardo Patrese was employed by Williams as a number 2 to support Nigel Mansell’s championship charge.

If you want to rid Formula 1 of team-orders, you have to remove the ‘team’. And to do this, you’d have to make it a single car series, each driver competing only against drivers from a different manufacturer/constructor.

Right now it’s a struggle to get ten interested parties to build two cars each to give us a 20-car race. If we told them their massive annual financial investment is going into producing a single car, we might find we don’t have much of a series.

Like them or not, team orders are here to stay.


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