When Ferrari clumsily ordered to Felipe Massa to move over for Fernando Alonso during the German Grand Prix this year, granting Alonso the win, a hue and cry arose from the paddock. Typical Ferrari, it was said. They were more interested in playing favorites and backing the stronger horse than they were allowing their drivers to race. Never mind that Formula 1 is organized as a team sport, and never mind that hundreds of millions of dollars are spent each year by the most well-heeled teams for the express purpose of winning. Somehow Ferrari was engaged in some sort of foul play.
Well, granted, Ferrari did violate the ban against team orders. For their infraction, they were later fined $100,000. But the clamor from the paddock seemed to embrace more than a simple rules infraction. It seemed to have more to do with the philosophy of the sport in general, as though somehow there were something inherently unethical about utilizing team orders as part of strategy. Many of the other team managers shared their opinions about this, and the most commonly heard statement was, “We let our drivers race each other.”
Flash forward to the penultimate and final race of the season. There are 50 points left to play for in terms of wins. The points gap between the top four drivers in the title chase, Alonso, Hamilton, Webber, Vettel is only half that, which means that any of these drivers still has a real shot at the title. And that’s where the quandary begins. Ferrari has already placed their money on Alonso. Massa is out of contention, and has been more or less relegated to being Alonso’s water carrier. But Red Bull and McLaren are now facing the reality that, if they want a serious chance of winning the championship, they might be forced to ask one of their drivers to support the other.
Two of the most vocal critics of Ferrari’s use of team orders in Germany, McLaren’s Martin Whitmarsh, and Red Bull’s Chris Horner, have now conceded that they might have to do just that. “I haven’t had time to look at all the mathematics and scenarios,” Horner told Autosport on the subject, “but it is something that we will look at pretty closely between now and Brazil.”
Meanwhile, McLaren’s Whitmarsh somewhat skirted the team orders issue by saying that orders, per se, wouldn’t be necessary, as Jenson Button, who currently lies a distant fifth in the points, would simply volunteer to support Hamilton’s title bid.
“We don’t really have to say anything to our drivers,” Whitmarsh told Auto Motor und Sport. “Jenson will offer his help to Hamilton voluntarily, because he knows that we have treated him fairly throughout the year. And because he knows that he will win now only with a miracle.”
This seems to be a marvelous example of issuing orders without actually issuing orders. It reminds me of a comedy sketch I saw eons ago in which a platoon commander was able to muster volunteers for a dangerous mission by threatening his raw recruits with a punishment that was far worse than the risk of volunteering. Faced with the alternatives, the recruits were happy to volunteer.
But is Button on the same page as his boss? Apparently not. On Sunday night, Button told the BBC, “You don’t win world championships by conceding defeat before it is all over. You have seen today how things can change. If mathematically I couldn’t win the championship then, yes, I would help Lewis.”
In fact, Button is not mathematically out of the running. He’s 21 points adrift of Hamilton, which means that if Button won at the next race, in Brazil, and Hamilton suffered a retirement, Button would lead his team mate by four points. Of course, he would still trail both Alonso and Webber by a sizable margin, even if those two drivers failed to score points. Martin Whitmarsh is correct about one thing: the only way that Button might actually get decent shot at the title would be if the four drivers in front of him all came down with the plague. Whitmarsh is hoping that Button realizes this without being told.
Bottom line: team orders are like government bail-outs. Everyone is against them until they become necessary. Then the concept becomes a surprisingly good idea.