He said what?! – Monaco Grand Prix edition

Just before the parade lap of the 2013 Monaco Grand Prix, David Coulthard, speaking of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton who were sitting first and second on the starting grid, said, “I’ve got to believe that Mercedes are going to work strategically and apply team orders.”

Formula One, and motor racing in general, is an odd mix of individual and team sport. Drivers are racing for themselves, chasing the World Drivers’ Championship, but their results also count for their team, towards the World Constructors’ Championship. In modern F1, each team can enter two cars in each race. The paradox is that each pair of teammates must work together, but they are also inevitably measured against one another.


Photo credit: andrius.v via Flickr

In F1, winning a race is as often the product of having the best car as it is of being the best driver. Only teammates, driving (essentially) the same car, can be accurately measured against one another. Therefore, to be rated as a driver, it is most important that you consistently beat your teammate. And that is where team orders come in.

On most F1 teams, there is a ‘number one’ driver and a ‘number two’ driver. Sometimes this is explicit and obvious (Michael Schumacher at Ferrari) and sometimes it is less so (often at McLaren, where they like to ‘let them race’ – as we saw this past weekend). Sometimes the number one driver emerges over the course of a season, if one driver is in contention for the championship and his teammate is much further back. In these cases, if the number two driver is leading the number one driver in a race, he will often be asked to make way to ensure the number one driver scores the maximum number of points – team orders.

This has led to some less-than-sporting spectacles over the years. One of the most flagrant examples comes courtesy of the 2002 Ferrari team.  At the Austrian Grand Prix, with Michael Schumacher leading the world championship by 21 points (in those days, a win was worth 10 points and second place, six), his teammate Rubens Barrichello had qualified first and led the entire race.  The team asked Barrichello to allow Schumacher through, which he did on the final corner of the race.


Rubens Barichello moves aside to give Michael Schumacher the victory at the 2002 Austrian GP.
Photo credit: Paddy Briggs via Wikipedia

The blatantly-manipulated result was not popular.  In the second-last race of the season, the United States Grand Prix, the situation was reversed: Schumacher qualified on pole and led the entire race.  Both championships were already decided, in Schumacher’s and Ferrari’s favour.  On the last lap, approaching the start/finish line on Indianapolis’s banked oval, Schumacher slowed, trying to engineer a dead heat with Barichello.  Rubens edged past him at the line, though, winning by 0.011 seconds.

For the following season, a rule was implemented banning “team orders that could influence the outcome of a race” to avoid similar situations in the future.  Teams got around this ban through discreet messages to their drivers, either or during the race.  By 2010 it was obvious that the ban was not working, and it was rescinded for the 2011 season.  In TPL‘s view, this is the correct decision.  If F1 is truly a team sport, teams must be able to manage their cars and drivers for the overall good of the team – in F1’s early years, sometimes the number two driver would even be asked to hand over his car to the number one driver in the middle of the race (the drivers split the points equally).

Some team orders situations are as famous because they did not work out as intended.  We have already seen an example of that in the 2013 season: in Malaysia, Red Bull ordered Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel to hold their first and second positions, respectively, in the closing stages of the race.  Vettel, though, felt he had a faster car and passed Webber to take the victory.  Neither the team, nor Webber, were impressed.

The scenario above illustrates one other type of team orders: in some cases (not necessarily Red Bull’s), even if there is no number one or two driver, nor a clear championship contender, teams will ask their drivers not to race each other to minimize the risk of them taking each other out of the race.  Variations of this strategy include allowing teammates to race into the first corner or until the final pit stop, at which time they are expected to hold their positions relative to each other.  Vettel is not the first, nor will he be the last, driver to ignore those instructions.

As always, questions are welcome at theparadelap@gmail.com.

Monaco Grand Prix notes

  • Forgotten after he decided to play bumper cars with Kimi Räikkönen was Sergio Perez‘s daring, well-executed pass of his teammate, Jenson Button, on the inside at the Nouvelle Chicane on lap 42.  If the last two races are any indication, Button will have his hands full with Perez this season.
  • There is talk that Mercedes’s results in Monaco could be in jeopardy due to a secret on-track test they conducted for Pirelli following the Spanish GP.  In-season on-track testing is not allowed, but the FIA will not overturn the Monaco results.  A hefty fine is likely, if Mercedes is determined to have broken the rules, and a ban for a future race (or races) is also possible.
  • Nico Rosberg became only the second driver to win from pole position this season – not a surprise that the pole-sitter won on the tight, slow streets of Monaco, but still a flawless drive.  His win came thirty years after his father, Keke Rosberg won the 1983 Monaco Grand Prix for Williams.
  • The win was the 11th all-time for Mercedes as a constructor and their second since their return as a factory team in 2010.
  • After Räikkönen stole the last point-scoring position from Nico Hulkenberg on the final lap, Sauber appears to be in real trouble.  Rather than fighting it out with Force India (and down-on-their-luck McLaren) as they had hoped, it looks like they will spend the season battling Toro Rosso and Williams to avoid being last amongst the established teams (I guess Marussia and Caterham are ‘established’ now, but they still haven’t scored any points – ever).
  • Räikkönen’s single point has allowed Sebastian Vettel (who finished second) to open a sizable 21 point lead in the championship – he never led by more than 13 points during the 2012 season (although Fernando Alonso led by 40 points after Hungary…a lead which evaporated in just five races).

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