Team Orders

(Yes, I should have written this some time ago, but I didn’t.)

In a recent entry, Magnanimous, I wrote about the very harsh use of team-orders by Ferrari to settle the 1957 World Championship, back in the days when junior team-members would be expected to hand their cars over during the race, if needed by a senior driver whose own car had retired. For most of the sport’s history, team orders have been permissible with only in recent times the practice banned by the regulations.

When Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss both drove for Mercedes Benz in 1955, to this day, Moss denies he was ever asked to let Fangio win, except for one sportscar race in Sweden. The usual pattern in the races was that Fangio took the lead with Stirling following just behind him. The Mercedes cars were significantly faster than the rest, and Stirling’s account (Motorsport, October 2003) was that if they were thirty seconds ahead of the rest, the team showed, “REG”, on the pit-board, which meant that they hold their positions. Yet it was always Fangio leading Moss, the one exception being the British Grand Prix held at Aintree that year. Moss took the lead in that race, and recalls how he was shown, “PI”, piano, the slow-down instruction, which Stirling did. In Sir Stirling’s own words, “Fangio closed, and coming into the last corner, I was in front by a car’s-length or so. I remember vividly putting my accelerator to the floor, pulling over to the right and waving him past on the left.” This way, Moss won his first Formula One World Championship race, but this answer he gave shows he believed he was supposed to let his team-leader by, but chose not to. It seems clear that at all the other F1 WC races that year, he played the team game, sitting behind Fangio subject to some un-admitted understanding.

It looked a similar story in 1978. The Lotus 78 introduced ground effects to Formula One, and was the fastest car in 1977, when it worked. By 1978, the car was more developed, and a few races in was replaced with the even better Lotus 79, which if reliable, the Brabham fan-car at Sweden aside, was in a class of its own, giving Mario Andretti the World Championship. The first full Grand Prix I ever saw on TV was that season, not sure which, but I remember the magnificent looking black-and-gold JPS Lotus cars cruising to a one-two formation finish (which after an hour or so became quite boring), Andretti leading Ronnie Peterson. Peterson died from his injuries after a crash at the start of that year’s Italian GP, having gained enough points to retain second-place in the ‘Championship despite not scoring at the last three rounds. Ronnie made no secret of having to follow his American team-mate home, but journalists asking Andretti about the team-orders tend to receive very sharp answers insisting Peterson was free to pass him any time he could. This seems very uncharacteristic for the usually jovial trans-Atlantic superstar. It was blatantly obvious that it was not a case of Ronnie Peterson time-after-time finding himself always behind Mario, being just fast enough to keep up but never fast enough to attack.

In 1979, Ligier were fastest in the earlier part of the season, Williams won five of the last seven races with the new FW07, but it ended up being Ferrari’s year. It was difficult to package the required ground-effects around the Ferrari flat-12, but the engine had a power-advantage and the car was more reliable than its close rivals. Even though Gilles Villeneuve led Ferrari one-twos in the third and fourth rounds with a points advantage over Jody, he was only in his second full season and was asked to help Scheckter win the title, which he did. In fact, there was only one race after that when they were running line-astern, the third-last round at Monza, when Villeneuve followed Scheckter home not challenging for the win, which result sealed the South African’s World Championship. With Villeneuve taking a second and a win in the last two rounds to one 4th place by Jody, had Gilles successfully gone for the win in Italy, he would have won the title himself. The Canadian driver’s ballistic fury after the San Marino GP of 1982, when Didier Pironi slipped by on the last lap to nab the win against instructions, had much to do with Villeneuve having paid his dues, in 1979 helping Scheckter, in 1980 and 1981 struggling with uncompetitive cars, and now it was his turn.

Another example of a driver ignoring orders was Carlos Reutemann in 1981. Williams got one-twos in the first two races, Alan Jones winning in South Africa, and Reutemann winning in Brazil, simply ignoring pit-board instructions to let his team-mate past. In the end, Carlos lost the title to Brabham’s Nelson Piquet by one point at the Las Vegas finale, qualifying on pole, but sliding down the field during the race to finish only eighth. He ended up three points ahead of Jones that he gained by winning in Brazil. The team celebrated Alan Jones winning the race held in the Caesar’s Palace car-park (where did people park?) and Reutemann was ignored as he slunk off. With the Australian’s (first) retirement, Carlos was team-leader in 1982, but after a hard-won second in South Africa and a race-ending collision in Brazil, chose very unexpectedly to retire himself. According to Wikipedia, this was due to a dispute with Frank Williams regarding politics, which I have never heard or read before.

The first time team-orders really embarrassed the sport was the opening race of 1998. The quirky characteristics of the Melbourne track exaggerated the speed advantage of the first McLaren-Mercedes that Adrian Newey had led the design of. With such an advantage, but concerns about reliability, the drivers, Mika Häkkinen and David Coulthard, agreed that whoever won the first corner would win the race. Häkkinen won this battle and the two cars pulled away from the field at three seconds a lap! Near the middle of the race, Mika mistakenly believed he had been told on the radio to pit, and drove through the pits without stopping at his box, handing the lead to Coulthard. The Scotsman was asked to let his team-mate past, which he eventually did very obviously, causing uproar. After the race, Häkkinen was full of gratitude for David honouring their gentleman’s agreement, promising one day to pay him back. He never did.

The main point of contention was the fury of those that had bet on Coulthard winning with droves of losing betting slips sent in disgust to Ron Dennis, who pointed out no one had contacted him to thank him for winning their bets on Häkkinen. I have very strong views on betting being a test of judgement, knowledge, and luck, and have less than no sympathy for those that whine about losing money for reasons that constitute their ignorance*. The penultimate race of 1997 had been the Japanese Grand Prix when Eddie Irvine had been in the lead followed by Michael Schumacher, the Ulsterman stating later, “I was waiting for the phone call.”, with Irvine slowing after the call to let his Ferrari team-mate by for the victory. This left Schumacher one point ahead of Jacques Villeneuve for the European Grand Prix at Herez that ended the season. On lap 48 after the second round of pit-stops, Villeneuve threw his Williams from a long way back inside Michael’s car, the Ferrari driver turning right into his title-rival, but the red car ended up in the gravel and Jacques had the lead. Behind were the McLarens of Coulthard and Häkkinen, David letting Mika by under team-orders with three laps to go. Villeneuve was slowing, feeling his car was behaving strangely after the collision, and he chose to let the McLarens by on the last lap rather than risk pushing to defend, and going off without those vital points. McLaren did not elucidate on why they swapped their cars around. The Finn had been close to dying after an accident in free practice in Adelaide, the last round of ’95, in the two seasons since had done less well than Coulthard, and word at the time was the team felt he needed the confidence of a first win. It was also possible they felt Häkkinen could circulate faster than David, and if released was more likely to catch and pass the slowing Villeneuve. Either way, the team-orders passed the victory from the flying Scotsman to the flying Finn.

Those that bleated about losing money backing Coulthard to win in Melbourne, amplified by the ravings of the gutter-press and objections of supposedly higher-end media, completely ignored that these gamblers should have been aware that it was the third race in a row decided by team-orders, indeed the second consecutive race that Häkkinen had won courtesy of McLaren orders, and if they had forgotten or chosen to bet with limited knowledge of the sport, then they had no one to blame but themselves.

(*I lost money on the 2005 USA Grand Prix after the Michelin runners decided not to race. After the result, the Betfair markets on the race were not settled whilst they considered the possibility of voiding bets. I had no sympathy for those in the forum complaining about unfairly losing money if the market was not voided, indeed commenting that I would complain if they refunded my money. If one gambles, one takes one’s chances.)

However, FIA subsequently decided to ban team-orders. Later in the season, when Irvine found himself ahead of Schumacher, it became a standing joke that he was due for some braking problems, which would indeed be the reason he quoted with a grin that Michael was able to pass him. Amongst the sport and those covering it, and I believe most following it, the understanding was it was OK that Ferrari were favouring Michael, also later in the season that McLaren were helping Mika, as long as they did not make it too obvious.

I believe the rule, seen as ridiculous, was rescinded by 1999 (if you know better as to when it was dropped, please comment). Again, it was McLaren verses Ferrari, Häkkinen looking to win a second year, Eddie Irvine leading the Maranello campaign after Schumacher broke his legs at Silverstone. Mika Salo was drafted in to support Eddie. Salo and Häkkinen both grew up in the Helsinki area, developing a fierce rivalry. Salo finished second to Häkkinen in the 1990 British F3 Championship. Whilst the future double-World Champion went on to drive for Lotus for two years before moving to McLaren, Salo ended up racing in Japan. He finally made it to F1 for the very last two dismal races of Team Lotus’s existence at the end of ’94, leading to three years with Tyrrell, then 1998 with Arrows. When Ricardo Zonta was injured, Salo did three races with BAR in 1999. When joining Ferrari later that season, his best previous result was fourth. In Austria, he could only manage ninth, but the next race at the old Hockenheim, Salo took the lead after Häkkinen had a re-fueling problem. What happened next was inevitable, that only after one lap in the lead he was required to let his team-mate past, finishing second just behind Eddie 20 laps later. Salo did four more races for Ferrari only scoring once more with a third in Italy. After that, he did a season with Sauber, before testing for Toyota in 2001 and racing with the team in their first season the year after, at the end of which Toyota sacked Mika Salo and Alan McNish, not believing that it was their cars that were that bad. Seeing Salo give up that win is one of the most heart-breaking things I have ever seen following Formula One.

After Italy, motormouth Eddie had a new number-two for Malaysia and Japan, Michael Schumacher. If the story is to be believed, Michael was only interested in Ferrari winning their first drivers’ title for twenty years if it was Schumacher winning it, that Stefano Domenicali phoned Schumacher for his daughter to answer and to tell that her father was looking for his football boots, after which Domenicali told his multi-million salaried driver, in no uncertain terms, that if he was fit enough to play football, then he was fit enough to drive. Certainly, Michael appeared entirely race-fit in Malaysia, being just for once on the sharp end of team-orders, letting Irvine through to win. However in the last round in Japan, Mika Häkkinen won the race and the title with Schumacher second and Irvine third. Had Michael let Eddie through, Irvine would have been equal on points with Mika but lost on having less wins. If Schumacher, only a few seconds behind the leading McLaren, could have finished ahead of Häkkinen, Irvine would have won by two points. The more suspicious of us believed that Michael was not trying that hard to win. He managed pole and fastest lap, as he had done in Malaysia, but just lacked a bit of race pace when it mattered. Of course, Eddie Irvine’s failure to win the title meant Salo giving up his only possible F1 win had been a forlorn sacrifice.

Michael Schumacher made an interesting admission in an interview during his retirement that when first he tested for Jordan, prior to his impressive debut qualifying seventh, he was unsure he was good enough. It is known that it deeply bothered him to be slower than a team-mate in any session, even a Free Practice session. This seems evidence of a streak of insecurity that probably drove him to the success he achieved, and the utter ruthlessness in what he would do to win (or will do to protect a point for tenth). His near pathological need to best his team-mates whatever was served first by Benetton then Ferrari. Johnny Herbert joined Benetton, then run by Flavio Briatori, for the last couple of races in 1994 remaining for 1995. He soon showed he was closer to matching the speed of the German than those that had tried before, to find abruptly that the team-management thereafter arranged that Schumacher had access to information from Herbert’s side of the garage, but Johnny was denied seeing his team-mate’s telemetry to help him work out how to improve his lap-times. Rubens Barrichello has hinted at the dark tales he will later tell about his time as Schumacher’s team-mate, describing being proud of the nine wins he achieved with Ferrari because he did not just have to beat the field, but the team as well. One thing I read was that sometimes with pit-strategy, Rubens was told not only did Michael have first pick on which laps he wanted to stop, but the Brazilian could not even stop close to those lap-counts in case Schumacher needed to stop earlier or later than provisionally planned, so Barrichello had to select second-rate strategies to fit around this. It is the way of Formula One that a team may choose to favour the driver they consider the best to maximise results, but profoundly shocking that Benetton and Ferrari were willing to sabotage drivers to keep Michael happy.

(The impression is that Fernando Alonso was given much the same service driving for Renault under Briatori’s reins, and could not cope with or comprehend the fact that at McLaren, Lewis Hamilton was allowed to race him and could race him on equal terms.)

The race, as we all know, that led to the second banning of team-orders was Austria 2002. It was the sixth of seventeen races. Michael was walking the ‘Championship (the year his worst finish was third). Rubens Barrichello had just signed a contract extension. He had set pole, been generally fastest all weekend, had beaten Micheal fair-and-square, and was asked from lap 63 of 71, progressing to threats of dismissal, to let Schumacher by. Finally, he acceded, slowing on the start/finish straight to lose by 0·182 seconds, so only just. For the podium ceremony, the crowd booed and whistled so much that Michael ushered Barrichello onto the top-step, and gave him the trophy. Team-orders, even when agreed to be justified, are ugly, but so late in the race, so early in the championship, when poor old Rubens had already lost three race-results to reliability gremlins, made the blood boil.

It was an appalling decision. It was against a backdrop of Ferrari’s third year of domination. Their refusal to let their drivers race was making things very dull, and Ferrari’s agenda was to take everything they wanted from the sport without worrying that the way they were doing it was taking away from the sport. When McLaren and Williams had dominated, they let the drivers race unless it was towards the end of the season, and it was reasonable to back one driver over the other. The excuse Ferrari used was their job was to win the title, that anything could happen, citing 1999 when Michael broke his legs. Of course, when Schumacher had his 1999 Silverstone crash, it was team-mate Eddie Irvine that was more in need of points, thus I do not believe that excuse, as Rubens getting the extra four would have been better insurance, for him to take over the title-challenge if necessary. Michael would have had 50 points to Juan Pablo Montoya’s 27, more than two wins extra without the help, and Rubens, with his previous problems that season, was knocked back from 16 points to 12 by the swap. My suspicion is they did it to make Michael happy. We all knew that Rubens was number two but this was just horrible.

So again team-orders were banned. In my view, and it seemed to be the consensus at the time, this meant do what you have to but just do not embarrass the sport. Thereafter, Ferrari did seem more willing to let Barrichello win over Schumacher that season (if he could beat the team), four times Barrichello leading one-twos that year – although that did include Indianapolis where Schumacher may have accidentally let Barrichello slip by at the finish, not realising where the actual line was, to get jeered again. I doubt that policy was Ferrari’s first choice but even they were jolted by the backlash in Austria into temporarily amending their ways. In the two seasons that followed, Rubens only got to lead a team one-two once, with many a race when the team talked about turning the engines down, with little impression of racing as Barrichello followed Schumacher home.

At Brazil ’07, Ferrari juggled the pit-stops to have Massa hand Räikkönen the lead he needed to beat Hamilton and Alonso to the title. Canada 2008, Heidfeld let Kubica, whom still needed to pit, past to give BMW not only their first win but the one-two. That the pass was team-orders was never admitted, but it looked obvious, plus the TV coverage cut to the BMW pit-wall to show several men staring down looking guilty and awkward. Felipe Massa had his turn when later that season Kimi Räikkönen let him past to second place in China.

I will not revive the details of what happened in Germany because the bottom-line is Ferrari had Massa let Alonso by for the win with what was so obviously team-orders that we all knew everyone knew it. Operationally, it was a fiasco. The team, if they were to do that, should have made sure Massa was properly drilled to make it look like it might have been with a mistake that he relinquished the lead, and Rob Smedley can not have endeared himself to management with the ham-fisted way his combined radio-messages had the subtlety of a nuclear-bomb swathed in bubble-wrap.

Article 39.1 “Team orders that interfere with a race result are prohibited.”

Firstly, just quite what does this mean? It has been argued that which pit-strategy a driver is given, or giving one driver a new part and not the other, are team-orders that could affect the outcome. It is understood that it means an instruction to let a driver by for position. Is it allowable if a team performs a slightly slow pit-stop to effect the result between their drivers, and could it be proved? Is it permitted if the two drivers are on conflicting strategies, that when one catches the other, that he be allowed to pass so both can benefit from their different approaches, and find out at the end who is ahead? Team-orders are not just about who wins; Antony Davidson, who drove for the uncompetitive Honda and Super Aguri teams, spoke about times when he was asked to let a faster team-mate by, or was given that advantage when he was faster. Why would any team let one driver spoil the prospects of the other in such circumstances?

Secondly, is a ban workable? Of course not. Every single team knows that and will apply team-orders, perhaps more subtly, which would not be difficult, if better results, and certainly the title, are at stake. If Lewis moves up to second in Abu Dhabi on the last lap, needing the win for the title with Button leading the race, it would be crazy if McLaren did not execute orders. FIA and the stewards would look the other way.

Thirdly, is a ban desirable? My opinion is it is not. Success in Formula One has always been more down to teams and cars than drivers. The media coverage has always been driver-centric, but of the thousands of man-hours that go into any win, the driver does a fraction of the winning but gets the lion’s share of credit. It is teams that enter Formula One, that employ drivers, and if drivers do not like that they can try starting their own team. If they want purely individual success as competitors, they picked the wrong game.

I happen to think Ferrari’s decision to give the win to Alonso was a justified call. Even if he had won, Felipe after Germany would only have been on 72 points, with the four main contenders on 136 to 157. Mathematically, he could still win the title, but realistically his title-chances were dead in the water. Alonso’s bid for the World Championship was still a very outside chance with the 123 points the win gave him, but, bearing in mind if he does win it will likely be by a tiny margin, those extra seven points could be gold-dust at the end of the season. The team-order ban is nonsense, and at that point in the season in those conditions, it made utter sense for Ferrari to decide to put all their eggs in the basket that did not have a gaping hole in it.

I know I am in a minority on this. Like everyone else, I would have enjoyed the race more if the Ferrari drivers were left to fight it out for the win, and always find team-orders leave a bad taste in the mouth, however justified. People say it spoils the sport. It has to be remembered that what makes Formula One what it is is that it is a team sport first and foremost. It would be great to see all the drivers compete in identically prepared cars to see how they made out, but we would scream blue murder if teams were abolished to be replaced by twenty-four souped-up GP2 cars, all run by one organisation to guarantee identical specification. The life-blood of Formula One is every team has to construct their own cars, run complex team-organisations, raise their own budgets, employ their own drivers, and if the inevitable consequence of this is sometimes they order their drivers’ finishing positions as it is a team-sport, this has to be accepted as part of what makes Formula One what it is. Teams should be allowed to do it openly, albeit to be criticised if done to the detriment of the sport without good reason, as for Austria 2002.

We await the FIA hearing on the naked use of team orders by Ferrari in Germany. It has been pointed out that the more serious issue may be bringing the sport into disrepute. I still believe FIA’s attitude is team orders are fine if not made too obvious, and above all do not embarass the sport. I do not hold with the view it will be fine because Jean Todt was involved in the decision leading to the Austria 2002 outcry; I think his loyalty to Ferrari ended when the job did, and I do not think he is a man who likes to be embarrassed. After Herr Mosley lost the battle with FOTA last season, Ari Vatenen was full of talk of a much more concillitory approach, whilst Todt seemed to suggest he thought Mosley had not taken a hard enough line! So far, Jean has led FIA from the background but he is a man that takes his authority very seriously, this being his first obvious chance to show his power and independance, so if I was Ferrari, I would be very, very worried.

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7 Responses to “Team Orders”

  1. RGV Says:

    Very, very, very good post! keep this way … ;-)

  2. guille2306 Says:

    I fully agree with you: team orders are part of the sport, and enforcing a ban on them is both impossible and unhealthy for the teams. The most one can ask is that team orders should be used in a sensible way, Germany 2010 was a sensible use for me, Austria 2002 wasn’t.
    Regarding the FIA hearing, I hope they approach it in a sensible way. Knee-jerk reactions (banning Ferrari for X races or striping the drivers from the points) won’t do any good, it will be just an acceptance of the hypocrisy. Maybe a good compromise would be to take away the constructor’s championship points, although I hope no further action is taken. Now, whatever is the decision, I expect consistency on the ruling: if Ferrari gets a big punishment and come the end of the year your Button-Hamilton (or Vettel-Webber) scenario appears, the offending team must get the same punishment. If the FIA is going to stick to the letter of the rule, then the rule says ‘team orders’, not ‘team orders except if the driver behind is fighting for the championship’.

  3. jackie Says:

    Absolutely riviting post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this but am amazed that there have been so many instances of team orders (and especially that many are not due to Ferrari’s bidding).

    I loved Mika to bits but being Scottish it also hurt tremendously that McLaren team orders scuppered David’s chances. What Ron Dennis failed to realise was that although he boosted Mika’s self esteem he consigned David to the role of second driver and never gave him the chance to really shine. I’ll always dislike RD for that and more so because he always said McLaren integrity was so important and that they didn’t have team orders. Still I’m in danger of ranting so I’ll stop at that.

    Wonderful, wonderful post. I’m off to tweet about it on twitter.

    • Sebastian X Says:

      I have never really forgiven Ron Dennis for what he did to my teenage idol, John Watson. For 1984, McLaren replaced Wattie with Alain Prost, a very harsh decision which in retrospect, I hate to admit, was a smart move, but not telling John he had been replaced so by the time he found out (Nicki Lauda told him) it was too late to find a good drive with another team for the new season, effectively ending Watson’s F1 career, was unwarrantable. DC out-performed Hakkinen until the team became title-contenders, and it was the other way around. I think it was very difficult for him when Ron and Mika seemed so close, and David was clearly not the favoured driver.

      Thank you for the very positive feedback, and especially for the support. My readership figures have been much boosted by your support and help from Sidepodcast. Glad you did not think the post too long.

  4. Viva F1 » Something for the Weekend XXII Says:

    [...] for a change of topic and a blog which thoroughly deserves to be lauded. I’m talking about Effjaun a brilliantly written blog by long-term F1 fan Sebastian X. But where to start? There are so many [...]

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