The events in Sepang last weekend once again raised an age-old question amongst many fans of motorsport around the world. Should team orders be banned in Formula One?
While in some ways it is inevitable that people will question whether team orders should be allowed in F1, particularly given the way in which both the Red Bulls and Mercedes were requested to hold station in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix, it is important to remember that Formula One is as much a team sport as it is an individual one, and with so much at stake for the manufacturers they are always going to make calls during races that serve their interests.
Ever since the introduction of the constructor’s championship in 1958, the teams have had a prize equal in importance with the drivers’ championship to fight for. Whilst the prestige and the main interest for the fans lie in the drivers’ title, it’s in the constructors’ title is where the money (and in some cases, reputation) lies.
All this means that the teams will take whatever measures necessary to gain as many points as possible for the constructors’ championship, and if that means stopping its drivers from racing on the track, so be it. If two teammates are running first and second in the closing stages of a Grand Prix, an order for the two drivers to hold position is far from unreasonable.
The difference between taking 43 points and no points from a weekend is fairly comprehensive, and with a points haul of that magnitude potentially being the difference between winning or losing a championship, it’s perfectly easy to understand the rationale of the teams in deciding to protect their position when they are running 1-2 in a race rather than let the battle for the lead descend into a demolition derby.
That’s without mentioning the fact that the reason team orders were legalised once again was that when they were banned between 2003 and 2010, they were largely ignored. While blatant instructions became a thing of the best (see Austria 2001), covert messages and instructions reminiscent of a British secret agent on the battlefields of war took over (“Fernando is faster than you,” anyone?). As long as such instructions weren’t so obvious to the powers that be, the illegality of team orders was useless, and merely a symbolic gesture after Ferrari continually abused the system in Michael Schumacher’s favour in the early 2000s.
If team orders were to be banned once again, it would be incredibly naïve to think that a new wave of all-out racing and total parity would grip the sport. It wouldn’t. We’d go from having such orders played out over the team radios to a return of pitwall Morse code (although with its ‘Multi 21’ instruction, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Red Bull were still stuck in that age).
Fundamentally, as long as the right to give team orders is used in a sensible fashion, there is nothing wrong with their existence in the sport. If it’s a matter of allowing your driver to pass his teammate in order to give him points in a championship battle, or ordering your cars to hold station to gain a 1-2 finish, such instructions are less about preventing real racing than simple common sense.
Taking an order to hold position as an example, let’s use two other sports to illustrate the point. No-one complains in a football match if a team leading 1-0 in the last few minutes decides to take the ball into the corner flag to waste time to prevent their rivals from gaining possession. Similarly, in test cricket no-one cries foul if a team nine wickets down on the final day blocks the ball for the last few overs to take a draw rather than launch a Twenty20-style attack on the opposition bowlers. Whilst perhaps not what the fans want to see, not a single eyelid is batted when those examples (and there are countless instances of them) are played out in real life.
Sometimes it is necessary for a team to do what is best for them at the expense of sporting entertainment, and although not ideal, they have a right to be allowed to protect their own interests without being punished.
The main problems with team orders occur when the right to use them are abused. Ferrari’s decision to make Rubens Barrichello move over for Michael Schumacher in Austria in 2002 disgraced the sport and lost Formula One a lot of fans. It was a disgusting incident and one for which Ferrari were rightfully punished. Similarly, the Scuderia’s order for Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso win in Hockenheim three years ago (although in some ways slightly understandable) bordered on the immoral and left a very sour taste in the mouth.
It’s these situations in which the use of team orders and wrong and it’s in these cases that some sort of ‘unsporting behaviour’ clause should exist in the regulations to allow the FIA to step in and intervene, but at the same time do so without jeopardising the majority of reasonable cases in which the teams rightfully give instructions to their drivers in order to gain the best possible result from a Grand Prix.
Whether teams give orders to their drivers or not is up to them. They are the ones who make the calls that determine whether they achieve success. It is the constructors that provide the cars to the drivers, and it is they who fight out one of the two championships that are there to be won in Formula One. It is for that reason that team orders are here to stay, and providing they are used sensibly, the idea of them being banned should never go past the stage of smalltalk.
And even if they were banned, the chances of the teams not using them are non-existant.