Team Orders: Are they to blame?

It’s a sad day when a racing driver is criticized for making a daring move for the lead of a race. It’s a sad day when there are rules in the sport which permit a team to prevent a driver from overtaking another. It’s a miserable day when strict rules are broken and the trust between a driver and his faithful team is strained almost to the point of snapping.

Now we’ve all had time to really absorb the events of last Sunday, we can delve into why everything happened the way it did.

Its should be pointed out from the offset that I personally do not agree with how the teams went about the race, that is, how Mercedes and Red Bull went about the race. I don’t believe team orders should be allowed, as they prevent racing and skew results that drivers really deserve.

We did see an interesting display of team orders in Malaysia, though, as the majority of team orders are for the purpose of making a slower driver (or number two driver) move over for their faster teammate. Team orders of this nature are arguably the worst in terms of the nature of a race. The anticlimax of a leading driver purposely slowing down to let their teammate get by ruins any potential battle between teammates or a deserved win by the original leader.

With Mark Webber controlling the Malaysian Grand Prix for a majority of the running, Sebastian Vettel made his way up to his teammate towards the end of the race. Out of frustration, the German radioed to the pitwall to make Mark get out of the way. Just a few laps later, however, the dreaded “multi-21” was communicated to both Mark and Sebastian, signaling the end of any battles they were planning on having.

Much to the shock of Red Bull, though, Sebastian blatantly and defiantly disobeyed this rule by the team. He made his move on the Aussie late in the race down the pit straight. Mark did his best to hold him off, but he wasn’t prepared to race at that time (he had his engine turned down as part of “multi-21”).

In the aftermath of the race, it was nigh on impossible to justify Sebastain’s actions. Blatantly disobeying a direct order from your team is unacceptable and Sebastian was right to regret his actions after the race. But were Red Bulls in the right in the first place to impose their team orders? As mentioned earlier, team orders are usually imposed when the team wants to flip-flop the leading order. In Sunday’s case, the team wanted to rein in a charging Vettel in the hopes of keeping the tires safe and their inevitable lead in the championship guaranteed.

The argument built surrounding this controversy is that Vettel was in the wrong for disobeying team orders. His contractual obligations to the team mean that his personal aspirations are technically second to those of Red Bull. No driver, no matter how successful, is bigger than the team. With this in mind, though, it can be said that Red Bull had no real reason to impose team orders. Yes, they wanted to preserve tires which were on the verge of destruction and yes, they wanted to guarantee that both the drivers would come home safely. Turkey 2010 replayed in millions of minds as Vettel made his daring pass for the lead.

The clash in Turkey isn’t the only instance if the increasingly deal relationship between Mark and Sebastian. Silverstone in the same year with the front wing controversy comes to mind, along with the same Grand Prix the year afterwards, where Mark pushed the limits of obeying team orders while following his teammate. Mark even made life difficult for Sebastian in last year’s Brazilian Grand Prix when the German was fighting for the championship. The tension between the two was there the day Sebastian arrived on the scene in 2009, and in Sepang last Sunday, the bond finally snapped. Left in the aftermath is outright distrust.

The Pirelli tires are partly to blame for the team orders yesterday. Had Mark and Sebastian been able to rely in their tires to remain intact for the whole race and not have to hold back, Red Bull would not have have had to set the finishing order of the race prematurely. Indeed, at least two of the drivers on the podium were not happy at all with the tires during the race, saying that they have to race at eight tenths just to keep them alive for long enough in a stint. The tires are creating a false image of racing these days. Do not be mistaken on a race day. It will be hard to talk to a driver afterwards who has truly pushed as hard as they can for the whole race.

In the end, however, the blame falls on the team. It is their job to create an environment where driver treatment might not necessarily be equal, but where they can at least control their drivers. Red Bull have created an environment where Sebastian is held in high regard; and he makes alarmingly good use of that. There is disconcerting sense that Sebastian is the “chosen one” at Red Bull. A fair assumption, no doubt, but the young German has taken his liberties within the team to an extent so extreme, his relationship with his teammate will probably never be repaired. Will Mark retire after this season? Who knows? It certainly seemed the obvious thing to do at the end of this season even before the events on Sunday. Now, will he want to back out early?

Tensions are well and truly boiled over in the Red Bull camp, and the attacks against Vettel for taking a win away from Mark are justifiable. What the events on Sunday served to prove, though, is that despite his comfort within the team and his control over what they do a lot of the time, Sebastian Vettel is a ruthless and uncompromising racer. He was prepared (and did) to disregard team orders for the sake of taking the win and the lead in the drivers championship. Yes, it was wrong of him to disobey his team, but can you really blame him? It is hard to argue that Mark would have stayed behind Vettel in the same exact circumstance.

This situation has done no favors for a driver who was well and truly hated by many. Is it his success over the past three years that had created this hate for the German? It is probable, and an unfortunate part of human nature. It’s a sad day when we hate those who enjoy success. I will admit myself that in my anger over Sunday’s events, I was quick to say disparaging comments about Vettel. These weren’t completely baseless at the end of they day, but I did lose a lot of respect for him on Sunday. What Sebastain has taught us though, is that he is here to win at all cost and that is nice to hear. I will admit however, as we have seen, there are consequences.

Red Bull weren’t the only team mired in controversy last weekend. Mercedes, who enjoyed their best two car finish in the team’s history since returning to the sport, were also worried about the integrity if their tires and fuel, with particular concern placed over the latter. Early on in the race, Lewis Hamilton was in extreme fuel saving mode, as Mercedes’ plan to aggressively fight the Red Bulls did not pan out.

Rosberg was in much better shape throughout the race and, despite being behind Lewis for the whole race, was catching his teammate rapidly in the closing stages of the race. Like Red Bull, the Mercedes pit wall was quick to quell Nico’s desire to pass his teammate for third. It was a rather interesting and, at times, heated discussion. In the end, getting both cars home in their current positions was more important than charging ahead and risking their cars.

The Mercedes situation was more alarming to me than the Red Bull one, though. Unlike Mark and Sebastian, Lewis and Nico do not have a strained and heated history. They have remained friends ever since their days as karting teammates. With Nico’s car superior speed at the end of the race, I was very surprised at the vigor with which Brawn denied Nico’s request to pass. Both Lewis and Nico are smart enough to keep things clean and not ruin the team’s chance for a great result, and Nico’s speed meant there wasn’t a huge risk of the battle continuing for very long. For this reason, they way Brawn denied Nico’s demands was worrying.

Coming into 2013, the consensus among the drivers and big wigs at Mercedes was that both drivers would et equal treatment. This seemed to be thrown out of the window last Sunday when Nico was not allowed to pass. Red Bull are known for their 1-2 driver combination, but at a team where both drivers are supposedly equal, it is alarming that they were told not to race; even for the cars’ sake.

Nico, though, handled the situation beautifully, keeping pressure in Lewis to let the team know he was unhappy, but never threatening to disrupt the chain of events. If anyone knows about wanting to bring the at home in the points, it’s Nico. Watch out for Lewis, though, because despite all the stark raving mad Lewis fans there are out there, he is not the little angel they like to portray him as. His disappointing actions in Belgium last year only serve to justify this.

The ramifications of the events over last weekend will certainly stay the whole season. Tensions are mounting and some have even snapped altogether. What we know for sure, though, is that neither team is done with determining the order of a race this season.

Ferrari seem like saints, these days.


One thought on “Team Orders: Are they to blame?

  1. Thank you very much for the good blog. I really enjoyed reading it, and I agree with many of Your points.

    I do not really dare to blame teams for the team orders, let’s be honest it is the double nature of the championship and the economic incentives to succeed mainly in WCC, that drive this approach to racing. WCC points give the teams certain income, excitement of the race only uncertain gains from sponsorship deals and marketing activities. And as long as these economic incentives are in place, teams will employ team orders.

    Sebastian’s disobedience is a sign of a major managerial failure at RedBull, and this is a rather alarming sigh, which is not entirely new. It is not the first time their drivers disregard the good for the team in order to gain advantage for themselves. And as much as I have always disapproved of Ferrari for their team orders, they deserved respect simply for the fact that their strategy actually works. If I am not mistaking it was Hockenheim last year, when Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso were helping each other out using slip streams in qualifying. I watched it and thought: Wow is is a team effort. RedBull, on the other hand, were neither capable to accept the existence of team orders nor able to implement them in an efficient and effective way, when it was crucial.

    I am far less concerned with the moral side of the whole issue. I have never been a huge admirer of Vettel’s, therefore I simply cannot be disappointed, and furthermore his greediness, selfishness, whatever one might want to call it, does not come as a surprise to me. Winning at all cost for a German is like saying “thank you”to a bus driver for an Englishmen, it is part of mentality, it is a social expectation in the society, it is what it is. And I don’t see this as Sebastian betraying Mark, or stealing his victory. Victory comes when the line is crossed and Seb was the first to cross the line.

    As I told You on twitter, I don’t see Webber as a victim in this situation. The victory was never his at the first place. But he trusted the team management, who in turn relied on Sebastian to play by the team rules. Mark’s win was never part of the equation for RedBull, 43 points were, and therefore Webber is a mere casualty of a managerial failure. At the end of the day the team has got 43 points, this is what matters.

    I believe, Mark Webber does not deserve pity or commiserations in this situation, but admiration. The way he handled the situation was not far from optimal, and making rational decisions, finding the right words in the state he was in on Sunday deserves a lot of respect. As he does for being able to stand by his decision to disobey team orders back in Silverstone, unlike the German.

    It will be Sebastian Vettel’s name in history books and there is going to be a longer article about his on Wikipedia, but right now for me it is the likes of Mark Webber who I admire. The good characters who stand by their word and do not betray those who trust them. Regardless the number of wins.

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