Team orders have long been a controversial issue in Formula 1. Whether it was McLaren’s orders to David Coulthard to concede title hopes to teammate Mika Hakkinen, or the massive history of Ferrari and Schumacher, team orders have always proven divisive in the sport.
Team orders is the term given to the giving of instructions to drivers to deviate from normal practice of racing against teammates as they would other drivers on the course, often in the form of instructing one driver to let the other overtake. Such action is often taken either in a situation where the driver leading the championship finds himself behind his teammate in a specific race, but is allowed to overtake in order to boost their individual title chances. It can also be used if both drivers from a constructor find themselves comfortably in first and second place in the race, where they will be instructed to drive cautiously in order to ensure the 1-2 is protected, preventing collision and mechanical faults whilst preserving fuel.
It is precisely this conservation driving that led to controversy in this weekend’s Malaysian Grand Prix, where last year’s champion Sebastian Vettel clashed with teammate Mark Webber over team orders – and hardly for the first time. In the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix Webber and Vettel collided, costing Red Bull their 1-2 as Vettel attempted to overtake his teammate. This caused Vettel to be criticised whilst both drivers maintaining that the other was at fault. Vettel’s apparent immaturity and selfishness were shown again here as he ignored team orders to protect Webber’s lead and a comfortable team 1-2 by overtaking Mark Webber, who had followed team orders to switch his engine to conservation mode – a move described as “silly” over the team radio. After all, the two cars has almost collided in the few turns prior to his overtaking, leading to a disheartened sounding team principle Christian Horner to remark “This is silly, Sebastian. Come on”.
This incident has unsurprisingly led to Webber questioning his future as a Red Bull driver. Aside from his refusal to confirm if he would follow team orders to protect Vettel later in the season, Webber implied that he felt it likely that Vettel would not be punished by the team again. The animosity was clear between the two players on the podium as Webber glared across at Vettel during the processions, and exchanging some none-too-friendly sounding remarks behind the scenes. Although Vettel may have apologised, I can’t see Webber accepting these publicly for a few days at least. He will after all be blaming his heinous crime of following team orders for the fact that he did not win that race. All of this in a race where Lewis Hamilton came third as a result of Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg following an order to protect him.
In the bigger picture though, can Vettel really be criticised too heavily for this incident? I mean, it is the same crowd of people who criticise team orders for ruining the sport by limiting the amount of actual racing done on the course who are now declaring their disdain for Vettel for the unholy crime of agreeing with them. Would the crowd rather have seen Webber-Vettel-Hamilton-Rosberg have a safety car paced jaunt around the final fifteen laps? Although it was dishonest, and may do severe damage behind the scenes at Red Bull, Sebastian Vettel has done what many-a marketing guru has failed to – project F1 racing to the front page of every sports website, and the back page of every newspaper. Vettel decided to ignore what was best for the team, and what was best for his teammate, and instead used a dirty tactic to gain an extra seven points in the Driver’s Championship. Whether you like it or not, I can’t imagine when Sebastian Vettel goes to bed at night, he’ll lose too much sleep thinking about letting down Red Bull, or Mark Webber. After all, other than the 18 points – there’s no prize for second place.