Since the German Grand Prix at Hockenheim this year, the issue of team orders has been repeated run through the sausage grinder of public debate. You will recall that Ferrari’s Felipe Massa moved over to let team mate Fernando Alonso pass, and take the win. The order to Massa from the pits was heard on the world feed, and Ferrari was later fined US $100,000 for their infraction.
Ferrari’s rivals have roundly criticized them since then, although many in the F1 paddock will concede that the rule banning team orders is unrealistic. Team orders were permissible for more than 50 years before the rule was finally written into the sporting regulations following a blatant let by Rubens Barrichello at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2004, which allowed then Ferrari team mate Michael Schumacher to take the win.
But it has always been a loosely enforced rule, at best. In 2007, at the Brazilian Grand Prix, Massa moved over for then team mate Kimi Raikkonen, allowing the Finn to take both the race win and the title. There was no hue and cry at that time, perhaps because Ferrari managed to finesse the move, in a way that didn’t offend the fans.
And there are countless other means for teams to manipulate the finishing order of their drivers, including pit stop strategy, setup aqnd tire choice and allocating the newest car updates unequally. Recall that earlier this year, Red Bull gave Sebastian Vettel the only available front wing upgrade for a particular race, while Mark Webber had to make do with an older iteration.
As we head into the final grand prix of the season, with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso leading the pack by eight points, many are saying that the title will be tainted if he wins it by a margin that is less than seven points — which is the gap he inherited when Massa gifted him the win at Hockenheim. Yet many of these same people, e.g. Martin Whitmarsh of McLaren and Christian Horner of Red Bull, will willingly concede that should the opportunity arise for one of their drivers to help the other at Abu Dhabi this weekend, they fully expect the driver in question to make the right choice.
As Christian Horner recently told Autosport, “We can’t control what our rivals do but for both of ours, the objective is to win. Ultimately if one of them can’t do that, if he’s in a position to help the other, whilst that would be his choice, I would expect that both drivers recognize that they drive for a great team and are big team players. I’ve got no doubt that they would do the right thing to help their team-mate.”
Sebastian Vettel has echoed this notion himself, saying, “At the end of the day we are employed by the team. And if this situation occurs you do not need to be a genius to decide what to do – you will act accordingly.”
And Martin Whitmarsh has stated that while the decision for one of his drivers (i.e. Jenson Button) to help the other (i.e. Lewis Hamilton) rests entirely in the hands of said driver, he nonetheless fully expects that the driver would do “the magnanimous thing” and get out of the bloody way, if required.
Apparently, both Horner and Whitmarsh are convinced that if a manipulation of the race outcome is voluntary, on the part of the drivers, rather than coming in the form of a directive from the pit wall, it’s completely acceptable. But is there really any difference between the two means of achieving the same end? I would say not, and if Horner and Whitmarsh believe that voluntary team orders (pardon the oxymoron) are somehow more ethical than the mandatory variety, they’re kidding themselves. If a driver moves over to help a team mate attain a better finish, the result is exactly the same, regardless of who makes the final decision. Either way, it’s case of a driver sacrificing his own position for the sake of the team. In baseball, this is called a sacrifice, and the tactic is as old as the game itself.
If Formula 1 persists in calling itself a team sport, then it should recognize that teams must deploy strategies that work in their own best interests. This will naturally involve giving directions to their drivers to attain the best overall results. Racing legend Sir Sterling Moss has voiced his disapproval of Ferrari’s use of team orders at Hockenheim this year, but virtually in the same breath Moss asserted that the team orders ban was a stupid rule that should be repealed.
In Moss’s day, team orders were de rigueur, and the rules were loose enough to allow one driver to take over a team mate’s car in the middle of a race, if his own car broke down. Five-time champion Juan Manuel Fangio did this once, and went on to win the race. Nobody whined that the result was tainted.