Sunday, 24 March 2013

#F1 - the latest 'team orders' controversy

Today's Malaysian Grand Prix ended in controversy and anger, as Sebastian Vettel took the win ahead of teammate Mark Webber, despite team orders from the Red Bull garage to hold station behind Webber in second place, following the team's final round of pit stops.  The post-race interviews and analysis dwelt on the subject extensively, and almost 1500 people have posted comments on the BBC's post-race report, the vast majority of which are also concerned with the topic of team orders.

One of the interesting things about today's race was the stark contrast in the ways in which the 'team orders' situation was handled by the Red Bull drivers, when compared to Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg at Mercedes.

But first, let's talk about team orders in general, for a minute...

Every time an issue like this rears its head, we (as F1 fans) have to put up with reading streams of Blogs, articles and comments about how team orders are "ruining the sport", and how F1 is "not real racing" because of team orders, and other things.  Let's not forget that team orders are only of use to teams in a few specific situations - ie. when your team's cars are in adjacent positions in the race, and also on the same pit-stop strategies (two stop, three stop, etc).  Red Bull's team orders came into effect around Lap 43/44, when Webber was leading the race, and Vettel was close behind him in second - but at the start of the race, Vettel started from Pole position, while Webber was fifth on the grid.  How did they get from fifth and first to first and second without "real racing"?

Fans who claim to be fed up of "stage-managed" races seem to forget that team orders can only manage two of the twenty-two cars on the track.  No amount of team orders can stop another car from another team putting a spanner in the works of your carefully-managed performance.  (Unless you believe the conspiracy that F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone stage-manages the performances of all the teams - in which case, why are you even watching the races at all?)

Formula 1 is an unusual hybrid of an individual and a team sport - and, in the end, there are trophies (not to mention significant financial rewards) for both.  It is also a sport which is spread out over a period of many months, and divided into nineteen individual races, all of which contribute to the whole of the Championships; for the teams, and the drivers, it is important not to lose sight of the bigger picture - when the title is decided, it's the total points over the entire season which counts, not who won each individual heat.

Of course, as fans and spectators, we want to see close action, high drama and exciting wheel-to-wheel racing at every race.  In my opinion, however, there is room in F1 for team orders and close racing to coexist.  The close racing aspect, however thrilling, is only one side of the F1 coin; there is another side to F1 (which, for my part, I find equally gripping) - the intrigue of tactics and strategy, of design, and of two drivers (often with hugely contrasting styles or personalities) fighting for points not only for the team, but also within the team.  Add to that the fact that the regulations state that a finite number of engines (eight) and gearboxes (one every five races) may be used by each car throughout a season, and it therefore necessary sometimes to conserve power in order to make these components last, rather than going all-out on track at all times.  It is a fine balance, yes - but that's what makes this, in my opinion, one of the best sports in the world.

So how does this all relate to today's events...?

Well, let's talk about Mercedes first.  Despite starting fourth and sixth, Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg found themselves in a very strong position behind the two leading Red Bulls - indeed, for much of the race, they were keeping pace with Webber and Vettel, and looked like they may be able to challenge for a top-two finish.  Unfortunately, the team had made a miscalculation regarding how much fuel to put in the cars at the start (possibly down to the belief that more of race would be run in wet weather conditions than actually ended up happening) and towards the end of the race Hamilton's car in third, especially, was running on less-than-maximum power in order to save fuel and ensure they didn't run out before the end of the race.

Rosberg, in fourth place behind Hamilton, was also saving fuel, although to a less critical degree, asked his team on the radio whether he should overtake his team mate, and was told "no".  After remonstrating with the team, and being told "no" twice more, Rosberg accepted his fate, and cruised home in fourth place, behind Hamilton.  Team Principal Ross Brawn's explanation on the radio to Rosberg was about fuel consumption (Rosberg would burn more fuel by the overtaking Hamilton - and both cars would burn more fuel by racing each other rather than cruising, and would risk not making it to the end of the race at all, effectively turning 27 points for the team into 0) and also about safety.

Whatever you think of this decision, and the way it affected the end result of the race (Hamilton and Rosberg finishing third and fourth, instead of fourth and third - and Mercedes getting 27 points, instead of 27 points), the way it was handled by the drivers showed maturity and class.  Rosberg acted like a team player, and brought the car home in fourth place (which is still an excellent result, 12 World Championship points, and two places gained him his grid position) while Hamilton credited his team mate during his interview on the podium.

At Red Bull, however, it was a rather different story!  After the final pit stops, Webber was ahead of Vettel, and the team instructed both their drivers to turn down their engines and bring the cars home safe and intact.  Webber complied with this instruction; Vettel didn't.

Vettel attacked Webber, and passed him.  Webber - understandably very angry about this - refused later to interact with Vettel, either before or during the podium ceremony.  Vettel apologised during the drivers' press conference, but Webber refused to accept his apology.  I'm not surprised.

As ever, the internet is awash with comments about this - and, as ever, a huge number of them are anti-team orders.  "What's the problem?" people ask.  "Vettel and Webber are racing drivers - we want to see them race, not just follow each other around!"

I want to see them race too - but not when one of them (Webber) has turned his engine down, under the impression that the other (Vettel) would do the same (as agreed), only to find he's being attacked and can't defend himself because he's running on less power.  That's not fair - and it's not "real racing" either.

What Vettel did was not the "ruthless" drive of a Champion who "just wanted it do badly", as some people would have you believe - it was reckless, foolish, and above-all, disobedient.  He gambled a guaranteed 43 points for the team on the chance that he might win it - as it happens, he did win, but if he had taken both the Red Bull cars out of the race (as in Turkey in 2010), the repercussions would've been huge.

Vettel, however, believed he had some sort of God-given right to win this race.  Never was this more clear than when listening to his radio message to the team earlier in the race:  "Mark is too slow - get him out of the way!"

He instructs the garage to issue team orders which work in his favour, yet petulantly ignores any that don't.  He expects to be given a free pass to the lead of the race (which, in the end, was effectively what happened, as he made a pass on a team mate who was powerless to fight back) and he expects to be able to get away with disobeying his team boss, despite risking putting the whole dynamic of the team (and, therefore, their hopes of a fourth consecutive World Championship double) in jeopardy.

As I've said, Formula 1 is a long game.  The race doesn't end at the Chequered flag in Malaysia - it ends in Brazil, in November.  There are many, many factors to take into consideration during the season, and the fall-out from this incident is going to be one of them.  Vettel may have grabbed the win here, but how will he feel in November if he watched another man walk away with the title of 2013 World Champion, and looks back at today's race thinking maybe this moment of hot-headedness was a turning point?  Will it have been worth it?  I doubt it.

I was never the biggest fan of Sebastian Vettel - but I have even less respect for him, after today's happenings.  However, I won't deny that, from a fan's point-of-view, this certainly sets us up with a fascinating situation going into the Chinese Grand Prix in three weeks' time.

Unlike the Mercedes drivers, who handled their team orders with grace and maturity, and just knuckled down and got on with things, even if they weren't entirely happy about it, like true professionals, the Red Bull team is imploding in front of our eyes.  It is impossible to know exactly how things will play out from here, but it looks as if the events of today's race will change the face of team orders at Red Bull for a good long time - possibly for the rest of the season.  The consequences of this could be very far-reaching indeed.  We could potentially end up with a situation where other teams are able to manage their cars to maximise their points haul, and to ensure the most efficient use possible of resources like gearboxes, fuel and tyres, while Red Bull are unable to do so.  Yes, Sebastian Vettel's rashness today could come back to haunt him in a big way.

But back to the central issue - that of team orders - now...

Many people believe that without team orders, Formula 1 would be more exciting.  Considering that they're all everyone's been talking about since this race, it seems that - on this occasion, at least - it was their very presence which has made it exciting.

Anyone who thinks that today's race was 'boring' because of team orders clearly didn't see the seemingly ongoing scrap for places between Lotus' Kimi Räikkönen and McLaren's Sergio Pérez, the drama of the front wing coming off Fernando Alonso's Ferrari on the first lap (and his inexplicable failure to come into the pit lane, resulting in a retirement from the race soon after), the chaos in the pit lane with Force India, Toro Rosso and McLaren all involved in some way or another, and the very promising showing from Jules Bianchi and his Marussia team.

The fact is that team orders are a part of the sport - whether you like it or not - but they are not a big enough issue on their own to "ruin" a whole sport.  Formula 1 is a very complex business, and it has many elements which make it up - team orders are but one of these elements.  My advice to anyone who hasn't been watching Formula 1 for very long, or who is thinking of watching it for the first time, is not to get too hung up on any one of these details in isolation, but to enjoy the glorious tapestry of the  sport in its entirety.

Formula 1 may not be perfect - but, in my opinion, anyone who thinks it's boring must be watching with their eyes shut.


Ripplingkeys said...

Thank you. Your point of view is very interesting. If Team Orders are so acceptable, why were they banned a few years ago? And if they were so unacceptable (then), why were they reinstated a couple of years later? What is the official thinking - or is it subject to a popularity poll?

Kit Marsden said...

Even when team orders were officially "banned", that was always a very difficult regulation to police during races. Unless you stop teams from communicating with their drivers out on track altogether (a measure of which some fans are apparently in favour, but which would undoubtedly create a plethora of other problems) then race engineers will always be able to pass messages to their drivers, and the somewhat 'cloak and dagger' nature of F1 means these will likely be in some sort of code.

Team orders were reinstated a couple of years back, therefore, as banning them was not really having any effect, and it was very hard to legislate for all the possible permutations of these types of communications. Working with something so malleable and open to interpretation, teams would always find some way around whatever regulations were put in place, and it was decided it would be better to have this all out in the open, and just accept it as one element of the tactical battle of F1.

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