Following Sebastian Vettel’s potentially controversial win at the Monaco Grand Prix on Sunday, a light has once again been shone on an issue that has already cropped up this season at the Bahrain Grand Prix. And that issue is team orders. The technical definition of a team order is a team issuing instructions to their drivers to deviate from the normal practice of racing in order to influence the outcome of a result. This can be done one of two ways. Firstly, this can be an instruction given in advance, simply by establishing a pecking order between the two drivers within the team. Or alternatively, it can be instructing a driver to let his teammate overtake or to hold position without the risk of collision.
Since the start of Formula 1 team orders have been around in one guise or another. And in the early days of the championship it could even see team mates being asked to swap cars so the number one driver in the team got the best possible car to race in. During the 1951 French Grand Prix, Alfa Romeo instructed Luigi Fagioli to swap cars with team leader Juan Manuel Fangio, whose own car had hit trouble early in the race. Although Fagioli wasn’t best pleased he did comply with the order given by the team leading to Fangio winning the race. However, as a direct result of that team order Fagioli quit the team immediately afterwards.
Team orders were still allowed throughout the following seasons, though they were famously banned following the 2002 season, and in particular due to the conduct of Ferrari at the Austrian Grand Prix that year. Ferrari driver Rubens Barrichello had been doing a spectacular job for the team, consistently out-pacing his four-time world champion team mate Michael Schumacher throughout the weekend. Barrichello led the majority of the race, but at the very end, was told by the team to let Schumacher past. Barrichello resisted the team order for as long as he could. But on the last corner of the final lap he deliberately slowed so Schumacher could pass him and take the victory much to the disgust of everyone watching, who felt they had been cheated of a true fight for the victory.
For almost a decade team orders were supposedly banned in the sport, though teams seemingly found ways to get around this either with coded messages or an agreement before the race between the two drivers. David Coulthard once remarked at the 2010 German Grand Prix during the ban on team orders that, “every team up and down this pitlane gives team orders. And anyone who says they don’t is lying.”
It was the German Grand Prix in 2010 that shone the light back on the subject of team orders, and once again it was Ferrari at the centre of it all. Ferrari driver Felipe Massa was able to leapfrog both his team mate Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel at the start of the race and maintained the lead until the pit stop period. Massa then struggled with tyre temperatures and was challenged repeatedly by Alonso for the lead of the race, though he still managed to stay ahead. However the team seemed to have other ideas and Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley came over team radio saying, “Fernando is faster than you.” Moments later Massa moved over to let Alonso take the lead. The team order meant Alonso went on to win the race. Ferrari were fined $100,000 for breaching sporting regulations following the race, and the case was taken to the World Motorsport Council, who ruled from 2011 onwards team orders would be allowed once again.
So fast forward to the 2017 season where team orders are allowed. Currently we have a very tight fight for the championship between the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton, and the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel. Both drivers have had their ups and downs and we still have fourteen races left, plenty of time for some more drama between the two of them. But how have team orders had an effect on the racing so far this season?
By the third race of the season in Bahrain, Mercedes had opted to use team orders in the race to maximise Hamilton’s points tally against Vettel, as well as help him challenge for the win as well. The team decided to split their drivers strategies in the end at the first round of pit stops, a move that resulted in the team then having to tell Valtteri Bottas to move over on two occasions during the race for Hamilton. These two interventions allowed Hamilton to inherit second, while Bottas had to settle for third. In this case it was cut and dry a case of team orders. The team came on the radio twice and told Bottas to move out of the way for Hamilton. He complied and Hamilton finished ahead of him as the team requested.
“We tried to maintain the order and not interfere as it’s an awful call but at a certain stage, you have to decide if you are losing the race or making a call,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after the race in Bahrain. “We’re three races down and we have always maintained that philosophy of equal drivers. I know it’s a very tough call and I don’t want to make it yet.”
While Toto Wolff may be arguing with the media that the team do not have team orders their actions both in Bahrain, and at subsequent races since have suggested Mercedes are favouring Hamilton over Bottas for the championship this year, and that team orders will play a part in that.
Ferrari meanwhile seem to be playing their cards a lot closer to their chest than Mercedes, and we are yet to get an out and out message on the radio from the team confirming team orders. That does not mean however that they are innocent of not using them. Monaco is a great example of if you read into it, you could see that there is the possibility team orders came into play. Raikkonen was ahead of Vettel till it came to the pit stops. Raikkonen pitted earlier out of the two, before struggling to warm up his tyres, an issue a lot of drivers had been struggling with all weekend. Vettel meanwhile was setting blisteringly fast laps out front in clear air. By the time he was pulled in for his pitstop Vettel had the buffer he needed to Raikkonen, and was able to emerge in the lead of the race. It is arguable here Ferrari had no idea the overcut would work as well as it did, meaning this was more a case of luck for Vettel than team orders. However, the team knew getting heat into the tyres after the pitstop had been a problem all weekend, so it could be argued that maybe the engineered the strategy to favour Vettel over Raikkonen.
Even if we exclude Monaco as an example of team orders from Ferrari due to the questionable nature of if it truly was a team order, there has been some favouritism towards Vettel at Ferrari. At the Spanish Grand Prix Ferrari had a new start system that was similar to the Mercedes, though they could only run it on the one car. They decided to give the update to Vettel, and many feel it was this start system that gave Vettel the advantage to take the lead of the race. If that is the case then arguable team orders, that stated the new update was to go on Vettel’s car were employed here.
So what does this all mean in terms of the Drivers’ Championship this year? The reality is that if the championship stays as close as this all season, there is every possibility we will see yet more use of team orders from both Ferrari and Mercedes. For the last three seasons we’ve almost been given a privilege to see a championship decided without the use of team orders. The utter domination at Mercedes has often lead to a two-horse fight for the championship between their drivers. They’ve not had to worry about another team with another driver fighting for the championship, so they’ve not had to use team orders to maximise one driver’s chances to pick up points against a rival. This led to Mercedes adopting a policy of not really using team orders with their drivers. Of course, there were the odd occasions where the team did ask a driver to hold station or move out of the way, but on the whole the team tried as best they could to keep team orders out of the picture, which arguably hurt them on occasions.
This year Mercedes do not have that luxury as their battle is not within their own team. Instead they have a threat from Ferrari and as a result have had to change how they operate. They can no longer afford to let things play out as they did the last three seasons with no intervention, the team need to maximise their chances of points if they want to win the driver’s championship. Likewise, Ferrari will be in the same situation supporting the one driver and maximising their points tally at the expense of the team mate. Both teams have made it clear in their actions who they are favouring for the driver’s championship, which is why we currently have a showdown between Hamilton and Vettel. Both teams will throw everything behind their lead drivers that they can in order to see them succeed. But in exchange the lead driver needs to bring in those race results and victories for the team to justify the effort the team are throwing behind them. Hamilton may get away with the occasional race like Monaco where he finishes a distant seventh, but if he carries on putting in performances like that then the team may be having words with him.
Of course, if you have one driver you are favouring for a championship that means you have a “number two” at the team. And at this moment in time it is fair to say the number two drivers are the Finns of Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen respectively. Racers however are always quick to say things like the day they are the number two in a team is the day they quit the sport, so why exactly would Bottas and Raikkonen accept such a status as racers? Simply put, they wouldn’t unless they were getting something in return.
If the two drivers play ball, follow their orders, and essentially play tail gunner to their number one team mate then their teams will reward them accordingly with an extension to their contract. And this already seems to be the case. Bottas has twice had to compromise his race strategy in favour of Hamilton to maximise the Brit’s chance to win. Firstly, when he was told to move out of the way for Hamilton twice in Bahrain, and then when he was kept out on older tyres to hold up Vettel while Hamilton caught up to them in Spain. By the time we reached Monaco, Mercedes team management were already openly discussing the idea of resigning Bottas for the 2018 season. Perhaps it’s cynical to think so, but it wouldn’t be surprising if a part of that decision to resign him will be based on how well he’s behaved as a number two driver.
Both Raikkonen and Bottas are on one year contracts that expire at the end of the season, and if they wish to stay with the team, accepting a number two status for this year may be what they have to do in order to get that contract signed. From then if they have the better start in 2018 they could have the tables turned and be the number one driver at the team, with their team mates being forced into the number two role. In terms of the 2017 season, they may as well write it off in terms of winning the championship unless something dramatic happens. The teams have made it clear their support is behind Hamilton and Vettel respectively. There will be the odd occasion, like Russia for example where Bottas was clearly outperforming Hamilton who was struggling, where the number two will be allowed the chance to take a victory. But on the whole Bottas and Raikkonen will be the tail gunners to their team mate’s this year. Weather that means getting the worse strategy, having to compromise themselves in order to help their team mate, or even accepting they will not be the first to get that shiny new update on the car, that is the reality of team orders in this case.
Team orders are not something that are going to go away, and favouring a lead driver is not going to stop anytime soon either. Is it fair? Perhaps not. Team orders often rob us of the chance to see a true fight for the points, podiums, and race victories. With one driver being constantly favoured in a team it leads to situations like Ferrari in 2002. There was no need for Barrichello to move over and lose the victory, Schumacher had more than enough points to the second place driver in the championship. But as the lead driver the team would do anything to maximise his points, as they didn’t know what could happen at the end of the season. Can we understand why teams employ team orders? Yes, we can. These are multi million pound companies with serious investments on the table. They are not about to leave anything to chance in the hunt for a championship. Even if that means demoting a driver to the position of number two, they’ll do it if it means they’ll win the championship. And as a result team orders are never going to go away, they may create artificial racing at times, but they exist for a reason. And that reason is to help a driver or a team win the championship. As Michael Schumacher once said when asked about his thoughts on team orders, “there’s only one target, and that’s winning the championship.”
Feature Image Credit: Scudaria Ferrari Press Release