What is right and what is wrong on team orders?

Team orders is not a new idea in any motor sports event over the ages, nor will it cease to exit.

Talking about F1 - It was possibly the most glum podium in F1 history. Red Bull had claimed a one-two finish on a day it was expected to struggle, after an exciting wheel-to-wheel battle for supremacy. Winner Sebastian Vettel in so doing put clear points over those he's expected to be in a title fight with this year. While Lewis Hamilton finished in third, his new team's car showing that it has potency on race day and is much more competitive than many had thought/feared in advance. Yet, you'd never know it. Of the three drivers' faces two were sheepish and the other angry.

It was team orders what did it. Both Red Bull and Mercedes, whose cars had ran in close formation at the front for most of the Malaysian Grand Prix's duration, chose to enact a 'hold station' order from the pitwall after their final stops. This should have meant that Mark Webber finished ahead of Vettel to win and that Hamilton finished ahead of Nico Rosberg in third and fourth. Rosberg chose (however reluctantly) to obey the order; Seb didn't and won the race.

So, Vettel did wrong? It seems so. He confirmed after the race that he heard the instruction as well as apologised for making a 'mistake' in taking the lead to win. But it's hard to believe that Seb didn't know what he was doing. It appears most likely that his competitive instincts took over and he couldn't resist seizing the extra seven points on offer, regardless of everything else.

As a starting point, we should repeat the maxim that is laboured: team orders are an inescapable part of F1. Indeed, they are an inescapable in an endeavour in which individuals from the same team are put into competition with each other (and if you think team orders are bad in motorsport you should see road race cycling, where eight cyclists out of teams of nine have to act in total support of a pre-ordained team leader at virtually all times).

But the whole team order issue in F1 is also much more nebulous than first viewing might suggest. And indeed we saw as much today. Red Bull and Mercedes did broadly the same thing for broadly the same reasons: holding positions after the final stops so that its cars reach the end without rancour. In one case there is criticism for enacting the order, in the other there is criticism because the order was defied. And in that latter case the same driver was criticised for asking for team orders earlier in the race only to be criticised, probably by a lot of the same people, for later ignoring them. In both comparisons, it is difficult to have it both ways.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W04 leads Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W04
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes AMG F1 W04 leads Nico Rosberg, Mercedes AMG F1 W04

Photo by: XPB Images

Sadly history doesn't offer us much of a guide either on what is right. While the likes of Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Ronnie Peterson are recalled fondly for their honour in abiding by an instruction, other cases muddy the picture. Ayrton Senna disregarded an agreement with team mate Alain Prost in Imola 1989 by passing him, which was the real starting point of their famous feud (not that you'd know it from the Senna film) and yet these days at least Senna receives little criticism for it, though that may be a part of the general deification of Senna's driving that took place after his death. Earlier, Carlos Reutemann won the Brazilian Grand Prix in 1981 having refused to cede the lead to team mate Alan Jones (and the team order was stipulated in a contract that Reutemann had agreed to of course). The historical consensus is that Reutemann did the right thing. Same goes for Rene Arnoux who did similar in regards to team mate Prost at the French round the following year. While on the flip side some believe that the reputations of Felipe Massa, David Coulthard and Rubens Barrichello never recovered from being 'demeaned' by giving up a place and/or refusing to seek to pass their team mate ahead; their honour in doing so barely is applauded, indeed some in the warped world of F1 view it as a weakness. Plenty have since stated openly that they should have defied the order. And then there is probably the most notorious case of this in F1's history, also conveniently with close parallels to what happened today, Didier Pironi claiming the win in Imola in 1982 from stable mate Gilles Villeneuve late on as both 'cruised' to the end in order to preserve fuel. Pironi has in many quarters achieved bogeyman status as a result, particularly as two weeks later a still livid Villeneuve crashed to his death at Zolder (to make a brutal point: if that hadn't happened would Pironi be viewed in quite the same way?). Today, Rosberg broadly played the Pironi role, protesting that he couldn't attack his team mate ahead as both cruised to the finish, and yet Rosberg is seen as the hero of the piece. It all seems to add up to a certain confusion of what is acceptable and what isn't.

Perhaps this is inevitable when trying to square the 'honour' of obeying a team's instructions with the 'honour' of fighting it out for position on track, two very different things.

There may still be calls for the FIA to 'do something'. There may even be a knee-jerk reaction from the powers-that-be as there was after the Hakkinen/Coulthard case in Melbourne in 1998. But it's unlikely to be helpful. As we've found out more than once, seeking to ban team orders doesn't work, just drives the business into subterfuge and serves to make the sport look even more foolish. We may, as before, just have to learn to live with team orders as an inescapable part of the sport, however grudgingly. As well as that in certain circumstances an F1 driver, such is the way with many of them, may chose to ignore them.

So, what are the likely implications for Seb? On the face of it, there are few. There will almost certainly be no sanction from the governing body, and as we know he rules the Red Bull team and has done for a long time, so his employers are unlikely to impose much sanction either. He may lose a few sympathisers, though like most of the top drivers Seb would likely subjugate popularity for results any day of the week. More regrettably Vettel's legacy might end up with an asterisk against it like Senna's and Schumacher's (and Pironi's) have for their misdemeanours, though probably only significantly so if such things crop up from him again.

And fairly recent history suggests that the negative implications for drivers who do choose to ignore an order may be less than for those who obey them. As mentioned, some recent reputations are thought to have never recovered from ceding to the will of their team, while it's hard to pinpoint the careers themselves of the likes of Reutemann, Pironi, Arnoux and Senna being damaged by ignoring them. It seems that in this game no one (among the protagonists anyway) ultimately objects to a determined winner.

Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing RB9 leads team mate Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB9
Mark Webber, Red Bull Racing RB9 leads team mate Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing RB9

Photo by: XPB Images

But one big implication that may not have entered Vettel's calculations, at least not at the time, is that in his endeavours to win world title number four this year he likely cannot now count on support from across the garage to do so. And such is F1's way that may yet come back to bite him. For example, imagine if in this year's final race with the title at stake we have a similar situation as in Brazil last year, except Seb needs to rise one more place to claim the title. Last year he could have counted on Webber up ahead clearing out of the way. Would anyone be so confident that Webber would comply now, after today's events? And we've seen generally in McLaren in 2007 as well as in 1989, and in Williams in 1986-7 as well as 1981, that intra-team warfare can bring an incredible strain generally upon a squad. Seb's campaign for title number four got a little bit harder today.

And it all gives us insight into Vettel's character. As we've suspected for some months and years it's clear that Seb has a game face, one which is rather different from the smiling schoolboy on show for much of his downtime. And it's also insight into why Vettel's won so much, and will no doubt continue to win things. Just as with many F1 champions before him, single-mindedness like that you cannot manufacture. Further, and like it or not, I can think of many revered F1 drivers past and present who would almost certainly have done exactly as Vettel did.

Indeed, within this I found Vettel's post-race apology in a strange way the hardest bit to take of the whole matter. My view is that if you're going to be ruthless enough to take the extra points on offer then fine, but don't seek to have it both ways by claiming that your conscience is troubled by it subsequently. After all, Vettel had several laps to give the place back to Webber and he didn't. And he seemed pretty happy as he celebrated on the nose of his car in parc ferme after the race.

Jacques Villeneuve's reaction to Rubens Barrichello ceding the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002 to Michael Schumacher, virtually on the line, and Schumi's behaviour on the podium and expressed claims afterwards indicating that he was troubled by it, summed up my views now as they did then: 'I don't have a problem with the team orders - the only thing I found unacceptable was the podium situation, if you win a race, even if it's in a way you don't like, then be a man and go up on the top step and take the trophy even if you are embarrassed because everyone is booing you. It would be stupid not to take anything you are given so if you are given a win then take it. But stick with it, don't say it's embarrassing and wrong and say you feel bad about it.' Amen, Jacques.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Drivers Michael Schumacher , Rubens Barrichello , Mark Webber , David Coulthard , Jacques Villeneuve , Peter Collins , Lewis Hamilton , Felipe Massa , Carlos Reutemann , Alain Prost , Alan Jones , Ayrton Senna , Gilles Villeneuve , René Arnoux , Nico Rosberg , Stirling Moss , Didier Pironi , Sebastian Vettel , Ronnie Peterson
Teams Red Bull Racing , Mercedes , McLaren , Williams
Article type Blog
Tags brawn, hamilton, horner, malaysian gp, mercedes, red bull, rosberg, vettel, webber