Team orders: a necessary evil

In general, there seems to be a very negative reaction from the fans to what Mercedes did in Sochi. I understand their frustration, but Toto Wolff did the right thing to make the call for the championship, but they made too much of a meal out of the execution of the plan.

Let me start this column with a clear opinion: I dislike team orders. Like every other true fan, I don’t want to see race results being determined by anything other than the action on track. However, I’ve also watched and been around Formula One teams for long enough to understand that it is just a necessary evil that’s been a part of the sport for many years gone past, and will be for many years to come.

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A look across the history of F1 tells us that team orders aren’t new. Forget being let by, Ferrari helped the great Juan Manuel Fangio by making his teammate Peter Collins stop and give up his car to win a championship, while Tony Brooks did the same in Aintree in 1957 to give Stirling Moss his car and share the victory of the British Grand Prix. Gilles Villeneuve, who was in many people’s mind the ultimate racer, understood the team game and gave up his chance to be World Champion in 1979 by following team orders to stay behind Jody Scheckter at Monza, while my Channel 4 teammate David Coulthard gave up two wins in a row to Mika Hakkinen at Jerez in 1997 and Melbourne in 1998 on orders from Ron Dennis at McLaren.

The most controversial ‘phone call’ which stands out in recent times was Austria 2002, when Ferrari got Rubens Barrichello to give up the win for Michael Schumacher. I noticed a lot of fans equating what we saw in Sochi to what happened there, but it’s totally different. Austria was much earlier in the season and Michael was miles in front in the standings, so it was a totally needless thing for Ferrari to do. I think that once you’re into the final one-third of a season and if the title is still open between one of your drivers and the rival is from another team, you have to back your title contender 100 per cent.

 

In general, there seems to be a very negative reaction from the fans to what Mercedes did in Sochi. I understand their frustration, but my take on it is very straightforward: Toto Wolff did the right thing to make the call for the championship, but they made too much of a meal out of the execution of the plan.

What the team should have perhaps done is made the decision before the race and made it clear to Valtteri Bottas so there was no question in his mind and also no ambiguity for the whole race. Instead, we had the awkward radio message of Valtteri asking about them swapping back on the last lap followed by Lewis Hamilton even more awkwardly offering him the winner’s trophy on the podium…

In the end, the way it all played out was messy for the team and led to a weird and subdued celebration where nobody seemed happy despite the fact that they had taken a huge step forward towards giving Lewis his fifth World Championship.

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I do genuinely believe that Toto was conflicted with what to do. The racer inside him wanted to let them do battle and offer Valtteri a chance to win as he hasn’t broken his duck this year. However, as the team boss and shareholder responsible for delivering the bigger picture goal of the World Championship, he had to make that hard call to get them to swap. While I do admire him for being a racer and even considering letting them race, he really could have made this whole experience much less stressful by making the big call in their pre-race meeting!

This whole situation could have also been avoided if Mercedes didn’t make a strategic error in the race (again) that dropped Lewis behind Vettel after his pit stop. On lap 12, Lewis was 1.3 seconds behind Valtteri with Sebastian 1.6 behind. Mercedes could have used the pit stops to get Lewis to leapfrog his teammate for the lead by bringing him in first and giving him a lap on new tyres to do a classic undercut and then told the world that they obviously gave their championship leader first call on strategy.

Instead, they brought Bottas in first at the end of lap 12. Psychologically for Valtteri, this would have further underlined in his head that they were going to let him win the race, making the disappointment of the subsequent swap even worse. Hamilton carried on for two laps, setting his personal best lap, but as I said in commentary at the time, it became glaringly obvious when I looked at the simple information we get on the F1 timing app that he needed to pit straight away because Bottas had gained 1.4 seconds on him on the out lap. By not bringing Lewis in, they opened the door for Ferrari to bring Sebastian in and therefore use his new tyres to jump ahead of Lewis. Lewis’ move around the outside of Sebastian at turn 3 was very exciting to watch. To see the leader of the World Championship go onto the dirt and marbles to brave it out against his big rival was great to see. It was also a sign that something has changed in the relative performance of the two cars in terms of straight-line speed. If you think back to Spa and in fact most races before that, the Ferrari was generally the faster car on the straights. But this weekend the Mercedes seemed to be at least a match for them and maybe even a little bit quicker. I don’t think that a few races ago, Lewis would have been able to get the acceleration he needed to get around Sebastian by covering more distance at turn 3, so whatever Mercedes have found to unlock that speed, kudos to them!

 

Mercedes then made the phone call to Valtteri. None of us like to hear these calls and see the orchestrated swaps happen, but it was totally justified. It’s easy for people to sit on their couches and complain on social media about team orders ruining the sport, but let’s say they didn’t make the call and Lewis loses the championship in Abu Dhabi for some reason by six points, it’s Toto and not them who will have to explain to his sponsors and the Daimler bosses why they lost when they could have won. Actually when you think about it, this is what Ferrari should have been discussing with Kimi on race day morning in Monza instead of telling him he was sacked…