Ingram's Flat Spot On
Team Tactics Hurt The Sport
by Jonathan Ingram
Is motor racing a team sport?
It's a question that was brought up in three major series over the past weekend -- and a situation still yet to be given a rest as the Formula 1 and Sprint Cup championships wind toward a conclusion.
In Brazil, Mark Webber lost a race to his teammate at Red Bull and probably lost the world championship to Ferrari driver Fernando Alonso with that result. If the final standings remain in the current order heading into the finale at Abu Dhabi, then the Italian team's driver will have won due to help from his teammate at Hockenheim earlier this year. And Webber will have lost due to an absence of help from a team cohort -- he's not exactly a mate -- Sebastian Vettel.
Is that any way to run a motor racing team? Dietrich Mateschitz, the founder of the Red Bull brand and the team owner, believes so. If nothing else, the brand stands for doing things differently with a flair for independence. The owner and founder is standing behind his energy drink brand and in so doing focusing more attention on it than the pepper-upper might otherwise receive.
I hesitate to suggest integrity in this process, because it's always possible the German driver Vettel might have received different treatment at the team owned by an Austrian had the roles been reversed and the Australian driver Webber was trailing Vettel in the points. (Witness events at Silverstone.) Also, as pepper-uppers go, most did not gain worldwide fame as a mixer for vodka, a sort of new wave martini, which also calls into question stated goals for Red Bull and actual implementation.
The view here remains unchanged. The moment team considerations come into play in a motor racing series on the track, the sport loses its integrity. In decades gone by, it might have been a standard procedure for one driver in F1 to help his teammate, but in the era of intense, live media coverage when this happens it's pretty clear the rules of competition are suspended in favor of commerce instead of athleticism or sport. It smacks of hypocrisy, not to mention leads to questions of the validity of a champion representing an entire sport.
There's also an element of greed. A very prestigious constructors' championship already exists that requires each member of an F1 team to do his or her best for a team to win. If there's already a team title, why sully the individual bout for the driving championship?
In NASCAR, there's currently a question about the rules of teamwork moreso than the rules of competition. When Crew Chief Chad Knaus replaced his own pit crew for the Chevy of Jimmie Johnson with the pit crew of Jeff Gordon at Texas last weekend, it left a bad taste behind for many.
The decision by Knaus -- to be sustained for the final two races of the season as Johnson tries to catch points leader Denny Hamlin -- followed by two weeks the decision by team owner Richard Childress to exchange the over-the-wall crew of contender Kevin Harvick with the pit crew of teammate Clint Bowyer. The difference with Knaus' decision to change came during the middle of the Texas race after Gordon's car was destroyed in an accident.
In a series without a constructor's championship, do all the team members at Hendrick Motorsports who have contributed to the success of the No. 48 entries of Johnson deserve to have a shot at the title -- even if it means dumping one pit crew for another in the middle of a race? How is it much different than the decision by Childress to switch crews, a situation that generated little hue and cry when it was announced?
It should be noted that Bowyer won the race at Talladega by inches over Harvick shortly after the switch, a decision introduced privately before it was announced and publicly supported before the heat of battle resumed. But it appears unlikely that Gordon will be in contention for a win his career and team desperately need in the final two races now that his pit crew has been moved, resulting in the current hoopla surrounding Hendrick Motorsports and the Chase for the Sprint Cup.
The opinion here is that Knaus' decision was bad strategy as well as bad form. Johnson didn't gain much with the crew switch, but his crew chief and team have been cast as desperate and are now internally distracted. That can only lead to more confidence at the Joe Gibbs Racing team of Hamlin directed by Mike Ford, who made the fateful decision to put more pressure on Johnson's crew by choosing an adjoining pit stall at the Texas Motor Speedway.
In China meanwhile, the Peugeot Sport team took a clean sweep with a third straight victory in the inaugural Intercontinental Le Mans Cup at the finale in Zhuhai, but only after using its lapped car to slow down the faster Audi of Allan McNish and Tom Kristensen in the final hour.
This scenario is double trouble. It's not about having one teammate help another in a way that is contrived by giving up a position. It was about a teammate -- in this case Sebastien Bourdais -- deliberately hurting the chances of a rival competitor, Kristensen, on the track. Once the cat is out of the bag when it comes to team tactics, this is the logical conclusion. Motor racing gets turned into a high-speed roller derby.
I actually like roller derby, especially the female variety. But it's never been confused with motor racing.
Jonathan Ingram can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.