If you’re even a casual follower of the globetrotting circus that is Formula 1 these days, then you will no doubt be aware of the ongoing debate surrounding team orders. There’s usually plenty to talk about in the build up to an F1 race but the subject of intra-team battles is a favourite among the ever-expanding troupe of pit lane pundits. Whenever and wherever the F1 road show rolls into town the media hawkers are much more comfortable drumming up interest by talking about pyrotechnics going off between stable mates than they are trying to pique viewers’ curiosity with the complexities of tyre compounds or the latest political manoeuvrings in the paddock. Whilst the engineering feats asked of some of the world’s leading brains and the Game of Thrones like struggle for ultimate control of the sport are both part of the intrigue for some, for the TV companies trying to win ratings, the chance to dig out the archive footage of Williams pair Mansell and Piquet going toe-to-toe at Brands Hatch and actually talk about on track action must provide welcome relief.
The most recent incarnation of this age-old discussion has risen from the smouldering aftermath of the Malaysian Grand Prix. Here, the opposing arguments for and against the use of team orders were neatly distilled for us in two separate sets of circumstances that arose during the race. On one hand we had Ross Brawn’s authoritatively delivered decree that Nico Rosberg hold station behind his team mate Lewis Hamilton and the pair bring home their Mercedes Silver Arrows line astern. On the other, we witnessed some feisty racing between the Red Bulls of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel with the latter emerging victorious, before later finding out that Vettel had disobeyed similar orders from his team and had seemingly mugged Webber for the race victory.
Never mind for the moment whether the concept of team orders is right or wrong; team orders have always existed and will always exist. We only need choose whether we want the FIA sanctioned antics exemplified by Ferrari in Austria 2002, where the Scuderia unashamedly ordered Rubens Barrichello to hand the win to team leader Michael Schumacher, or the more clandestine version (necessitated by the FIA’s banning of team orders) best exemplified by Ferrari at Hockenheim in 2010, where the team covertly (but equally unashamedly) asked Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso through to take the chequered flag.
This time round the post race analysis has centred not on the issuing of driver instructions in the first place, but whether or not the driver in question chooses to obey them or not. Essentially there are two schools of thought on this. The first concludes that race drivers are ruthless beasts and those who have been most successful in the past have often displayed an uncompromising attitude to ethical treatment of their competitors. The oft-quoted sound byte of Ayrton Senna (arguably the sport’s greatest champion) is offered in support of this paradigm: “…if you no longer go for a gap, you are no longer racing”. The more principled school of thought is that racing is nothing without honour and there is no merit in beating someone whose hands are tied behind their back in the way that we were led to believe Mark Webber’s were.
Shades of grey exist between the two extremes and even Vettel himself had not quite worked out whether to be remorseful, as he was immediately after the race in Malaysia in offering his apologies to his team, or bullish, as he was in the build up to the following race weekend in China, proclaiming that he was racing, saw an opportunity and took it. At the more philosophical end of the spectrum we had Lewis Hamilton feeling uncomfortable that his team denied the quicker driver the higher finishing position, vocalising his desires to always be allowed to race and for the best man to win. For the time being we must accept this as genuine contrition though you must question whether Hamilton will maintain this stance if he ever has a team mate quick enough to consistently beat him.
Whichever viewpoint you subscribe to, the debate has provided no shortage of publicity for the pinnacle of motor racing and reminded us that it’s not all about tyres and torque maps. For now though, the bandwagon has moved on to Barcelona and the talking can stop and the racing resume.