Teams versus drivers: team orders in Formula One

During last night’s British Grand Prix, a fresh example of team orders erupted in the least-expected (though most likely, according to so many) of places with Christian Horner telling Webber to ‘maintain the gap’ via team radio. It must be said, based purely on the accent, it was significantly less memorable a phrase than Rob Smedley’s ‘Fernando is faster than you’, but that’s just me.
Now although team orders are legal, the question remains: should Horner have made that call, or did he unnecessarily detract from the spectacle? We know he was well within his rights to do so, and the call was amongst some of the less dramatic the sport has seen over the years. But the disappointment that followed from most of the fans and the media can’t have been baseless. Let’s have a look.
To recap, the last stint of Sunday’s race saw Webber carrying significantly greater pace than Vettel, culminating in a battle on the final few laps for second place. Aided by his DRS and a working KERS system, Webber tried to pass a number of times, falling short on each occasion. The audience then became aware thanks to the ever vigilant FOM radio monitors that Christian Horner was imploring his Australian driver to ‘maintain the gap’ rather than risk writing both cars out of the race. Whilst Webber did ignore his own engineers calls to hold position, whether or not he heeded those of his team principal remains unclear. Either way, the team got what they wanted.

2002 Austrian Grand Prix

Now roll the clock back to Austria 2002 briefly, if you will. The case of team orders that had the FIA write up their original ban after unprecedented outrage from both the fans and media at such unabashed (And rather pointless) influencing of a race result. Ferrari ordered race leader Ruben Barrichello – who had driven dominantly that weekend – to pull aside for Michael Schumacher in order to allow the German to take home the maximum number of points. Schumacher and Ferrari already had a commanding lead in both championships – Schumacher had won four of the first five races, while Barrichello had failed to finish all but one. Nevertheless, Ferrari had them switch positions anyway.
We can draw parallels between the two situations up to a point – although it must be said the latter was significantly more reprehensible than the former. In both cases the beneficiary of the orders was leading the championship race by a considerable margin. Sebastian Vettel was, in fact, leading by more than Michael Schumacher was. While the move wasn’t as blatant, it certainly aimed towards similar ends.
What’s different is that Webber and Vettel were not vying for the lead. Rather, second place – and thus only three points. Moreover,, Red Bull took home 33 points from the 2-3 finish.
What the argument truly comes down to, however, is something much broader. Team orders comes down to the team versus the driver. Is Formula One still a team sport, or is it now driver-oriented?
‘At the end of the day, the team is the biggest thing,’ contends Horner. ‘No individual is bigger than the team.’
‘I can understand Mark’s frustration in that, but had it been the other way round, it would have been exactly the same.’
People do generally tend to forget that Formula One began as a team sport. It’s evident as early as the 1956 Italian Grand Prix when Ferrari driver Peter Collins donated his car to Juan Manuel Fangio, who needed to score at least a point to win his third title. That’s how the team worked.
However, inversely, we have to consider the point of view put forward by one Crazy Bernie (or Bernie Ecclestone, as he’s known professionally). If anyone knows Formula One, it’s Ecclestone, who’s pulled the sport into the modern era and turned it into a global phenomenon.
Speaking exclusively to James Allen, Ecclestone outlined how Formula One, with its commercial dependencies, must necessarily be a driver’s sport.

Bernie: It’s about the drivers

‘We need people to not go to an event and known what’s going to happen,’ suggests Ecclestone. ‘When they go to a race they’re talking about all sorts of things, not mechanical things, but about the drivers; who’s going to win and who’s not going to win.’
‘That’s why all races that are held in wet conditions are that much better.’
He points towards Vettel’s current domination of the sport as a cause of public attraction rather than a sour point, telling us that again it’s the battle between the drivers that people really care about.
‘Apart from Sebastian winning everything it’s an incredible season,’ he said. ‘Having said that people want to know who’s going to beat him. We just had a tennis match and it was magic for people to see Nadal get beaten.’
You can read James Allen’s exclusive interview with Bernie Ecclestone here.
So which is it? Is Formula One a sport of drivers or a sport of constructors? As Ecclestone said, particularly taking into consideration the way in which the sport has evolved, significantly greater emphasis is being placed on the drivers. After all, it’s the drivers who create the on-track action that the majority of the spectators are paying money to watch.
On the other hand, for those who are more keenly tuned to the happenings of the sport, the teams are put in greater focus. We care about how the teams function and perform, and we find the technical side of the sport equally as fascinating as driver rivalry.
The obvious answer is that there needs to be a balance. Formula One is, at its heart, a team sport. As Horner said, ‘no individual is bigger than the team’. Indeed, it requires an entire squad of people to go racing in the first place, the driver is merely the recipient of their hard work. That said, calls such as those made by Horner frustrate the public when the team has an unusually small amount to lose. With them in a near-insurmountable position in both championship standings, even a double-write-off would have only a minor impact on their quest for back-to-back titles. Moreover, despite their history of rivalry and collisions, shouldn’t the team put a certain level of trust in their drivers to play safe?
While it mightn’t have been so blatant as Austria 2002, it amounted to something very close, and it’s frustrating that the chance of witnessing a battle between two top drivers in the field’s best car taken away.

 You can follow me on Twitter, if you have nothing better to do: @MichaelLamonato 

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