Is F1 an individual or team sport? The case of team orders
July 26, 2010
F1 has found itself in a rather silly situation, in that the rules say that team orders cannot be applied to alter the positions in a race and yet everyone recognises that this is practically impossible to enforce, so it will be interesting to see what the FIA’s World Motorsport Council makes of the goings on at the German Grand Prix this weekend. The current rules were created following the way in which Ferrari applied team orders at the Austrian Grand Prix of 2002. This was in the period when Ferrari were building up to their dominance of F1, with Michael Schumacher winning the drivers’ championship for five successive years between 2000 and 2004. It was clear to most of those following F1 that Ferrari had a clear strategy of focusing all their efforts on securing the drivers’ championship for Schumacher, with the additional driver providing a clear supporting role, however the way in which they secured the win in Austria with the unusually dominant Rubens Barrichello being asked to allow Michael to pass and secure the win resulted in a global outcry that races were being fixed. The notion of team orders is as old as Grand Prix racing and certainly has existed in Formula 1 since it started in 1950, particularly as from 1950 to 1957 there was no constructors championship and so everything was focused on getting one particular driver to become world champion, unless you were Enzo Ferrari of course, when no driver was allowed to become more famous than his cars (although apparently this philosophy has now changed!).
Some teams, notably Williams, McLaren and more recently, Red Bull Racing, have been very explicit that they do not have team orders, although there are generally agreements between drivers to avoid situations such as those at the Turkish Grand Prix where Webber and Vettel took each other out of the race, and Button and Hamilton very nearly managed a similar feat a few laps later. I have always regarded F1 as a team, rather than an individual sport, it therefore makes sense for some explicit orders to exist so that the team is maximising its performance. After all the only separation, apart from the drivers’ and their entourages, are the dedicated race engineers, the same mechanics do the pitstop no matter which driver it is, the same people design and build both cars – one team with two players. Jean Todt was therefore unrepentant back in 2002, as Ferrari Team Principal, when he received widespread criticism for asking Barrichello to relinquish the lead – it was for the good of the team and that was where his priorities lay. However, lest we forget, F1 is also a spectator sport, and there was no question that Turkey 2010 was one of the most exciting Grand Prix this year because drivers from the same team were genuinely racing each other. So we are left with a typical F1 compromise, no team orders, or rather no team orders that look like team orders. So when Rob Smedley radioed to Massa that ‘Alonso is faster than you, please confirm’ it was clear to anyone with a passing interest in F1 that there was some other meaning here, and when Massa duly let Fernando past it became self-evident what that meaning was.
It is interesting to ponder as to the wording on Fernando’s Ferrari contract, given his experiences at McLaren he was probably very keen to get some explicit commitment to number one status at the Scuderia. I’m not a lawyer, but I wonder if a contract (and I clearly have no knowledge as to whether or not this is the case with Alonso) which effectively applies team orders – ie one driver is explicitly given rights over another – is enforceable in a sport where the rules clearly state the opposite? The FIA has a Contracts Recognition Board, designed to arbitrate in contractual disputes between teams, I wonder whether they also need to be vetting contracts to ensure they comply with FIA regulations? Maybe something for the new President of the FIA – Mr Todt – to consider.
But I’d like to propose a different solution. I have no problem with Ferrari applying team orders – it is a strategic choice that they have made in how they run the team. I believe each team should make an explicit and verifiable statement to the FIA and the public about their approach to team orders, so Ferrari can stop pretending to be doing one thing while clearly doing another. It might be embarrassing for some number 1 and number 2 drivers, but at least the fans will know where they stand and allegations of race fixing would become a thing of the past, imagine that!