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When team orders need you to move over

12 Sep 2014  /  0

Team orders in Formula 1 has been something of a hot topic recently. In light of the collision between the Mercedes drivers and all the instructions that we hear from the pit wall that have been seemingly ignored recently by Lewis Hamilton, it’s a subject that people have varying opinions about. In both Budapest and Monza, I think Lewis was absolutely right to ignore the pit wall and keep pushing on. Although he’s part of a team, Lewis is fighting for the World Driver’s Championship and sometimes he has to be selfish and deal with the consequences later. Mercedes meanwhile should be applauded for letting their drivers race and fight it out despite the odd skirmish which cost them a win at Spa.

Hamilton RosbergMy first thought is that team orders in sport are really nothing new. The phrase ‘team order’ is very vague – I would say the Captain asking his fast bowler to ball a slower ball is a team order in cricket. I would say asking a ‘domestique’ to attack into the wind for his team leader in the Tour de France is a team order. I would say that asking Wayne Rooney to sit out the first part of a crucial football match versus Real Madrid is a team order. I would even say that the coach determining the order of runners in a relay at the Olympics is a team order.

The point I’m trying to make is that fundamentally, I’m not against the principle of team orders in sport. There were plenty of people shouting about banning team orders after Ferrari famously swapped the lead at Hockenheim in 2010, but I disagreed then and I’ll disagree now. I think that sometimes teams have to make decisions keeping in mind the bigger picture, whether it’s a popular decision or not. In that case, Fernando was clearly the only championship hopeful and there was nothing wrong in Ferrari using every trick in the book to back their man.

Assuming I’ve now convinced you that team orders are okay in sport, let’s think about people who ignore team orders. In life, I think it’s all about being able to look at yourself in the mirror at night and justify your actions for that day. As racing drivers – or any sportsman – we’re born with this weird, almost unnatural need to win and succeed at everything. Trust me, I am a terrible person to play board games with! We’re hugely competitive in a very obsessive way. But I think the difference between sportsmen comes from just what lengths you will go to win at all costs – between what is justifiable to yourself and what isn’t.

If we look back at the history of Formula 1, I can think of so many instances where these differences come up. Take Gilles Villeneuve for example – in 1979 he could’ve attacked Jody Scheckter at the final races and battled for the Championship himself but instead he played the team game, kept his word and supported the South African as Jody went on to be World Champion. Mika Salo and Eddie Irvine both went to Ferrari knowing and believing they were going to be number two to Eddie and Michael Schumacher respectively. Both did what was expected of them by moving over for the respective team leaders when asked. Actually, if you think about it, so did Michael when he came back to Sepang in 1999 to support Eddie! Think of David Coulthard and Heinz Harald Frentzen in Jerez in 1997 moving over for Mika Hakkinen and Jacques Villeneuve, or the unforgettable race in Austria 2002 where Rubens moved over for Michael at the final corner of the race. I could go on – in each of these instances it must have been eating these guys alive to move over for their teammates but they did it for the greater good of the team.

The situation in Sepang last year with Webber and Vettel was very similar to the 1998 Belgian Grand Prix, where the Jordan team asked Ralf Schumacher to hold station behind Damon Hill. Ralf felt he was much faster, he wanted to attack and pass and take the win but after much radio traffic, he agreed and stayed behind in second place. Fast forward 15 years and the younger German driver in second place didn’t listen as much. His move to attack Mark after there was an agreement about holding station after the final stop was a move that said “I’m number 1 in this team, and nobody is going to hold me back from achieving what I want to achieve”. It was reminiscent of Ayrton Senna at Imola in 1989 or Didier Pironi at Imola in 1982 or in some ways I suppose the various instances in the Ferrari days where Schumacher established that he and only he was the team’s number 1. It’s not a popular decision, it’s not a decision that will make them friends or even earn them the respect of their teammates and colleagues but ultimately it earns them the extra points. As I said, it’s all about justifying it to yourself and being able to sleep at night, which they all must have done in their own ways.

So what are the implications of ignored team orders? Well first of all, it means plenty of time wasted explaining to the media and fire fighting for the management who really just want to focus on getting success on track. It means that there will always be a question mark in the back of the driver’s mind about whether or not he can trust the information coming from the other side of the pit garage. I’m sure it also raises a small question mark in the minds of the guys on the pit wall about the next time they ask one of their drivers to help the other. But ultimately, the drivers have to do whatever they feel is needed to win the ultimate prize in motorsport.

Also read:

Formula 1’s top team order controversies

 

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