When a driver is instructed over the radio to move aside to let their teammate past, it is rarely a popular message. The potential excitement and risk of teammates racing in equal machinery, potentially putting on a fantastic display of racing, or ruining each other’s races, is quickly quelled. Although usually a (boring, yet) sensible move from the team’s perspective, it can be frustrating and kill the tension of a race. Rhys Thomas explains further.
That disappointment has never stopped it from happening, though. It has occurred in various forms since the very beginnings of Formula 1 in the 1950s. In 1951 Alfa Romeo took it to the extreme: second driver Luigi Fagioli was persuaded to give his car (permitted at the time) to eventual championship winner Juan Manuel Fangio so the Argentine could take the victory (though they shared the points).
Mercedes have had a run of deploying team orders to benefit star man Lewis Hamilton
Surely the most notorious is incident came in 2002, where Schumacher was allowed past by teammate Barichello on the final corner to win in Austria to a chorus of boos. After this, the FIA banned team orders, but following not so creative or subtle workaround messages such as “Fernando is faster than you”, the ban was lifted as it was too difficult to police consistently. The benefits – or complications, depending on how you look at it – of team orders were demonstrated in 2013, where Vettel disobeyed instructions to stay behind teammate Webber and soured their relationship and previously successful dynamic.
More recently, Mercedes have had a run of deploying team orders to benefit star man Lewis Hamilton. The most frustrating occurrences for many fans was at the German and Russian Grand Prix in 2018, with the notorious radio call of “Valterri, it’s James, please hold position [behind Hamilton]”; James, in this case, being James Vowles, Mercedes’ Chief Strategist and responsible for these sorts of tactical decisions. Despite the outrage, these decisions were understandable, given Hamilton was fighting Ferrari’s Vettel closely in the championship whereas his teammate Bottas was not in the title fight.
Bottas and Perez still have a crucial role to play in said duel for the title as teammates of the challengers
It is only logical that a team would swap positions of their two drivers if it increased their chances of winning the championship. This is a factor that Red Bull can use to their advantage this year as they seek a first championship since 2013. They were “guilty” of it in France this season, not allowing Perez to fight Verstappen despite it being relatively early in the season. McLaren, though not gunning for the title, have also swapped their drivers this season, although it is naturally less controversial and attracted fewer media coverage than a manoeuvre influencing the titanic title battle.
Bottas and Perez still have a crucial role to play in said duel for the title as teammates of the challengers. Unless Perez fancies destroying his Red Bull career, he will not fight Verstappen at all. Similarly, Bottas – although leaving Mercedes after this season – has already conceded he will ‘take one for the team’ to help Hamilton grasp a historic eighth title.
Another factor in team orders is that strategists may sacrifice their second drivers’ races by not pitting them at an optimum time to hold up Hamilton or Verstappen later in the race. In these areas, Mercedes have an advantage given the contrasting qualifying performances of Bottas and Perez. As of the Turkish Grand Prix, the Finn has an average qualifying position of 4.25, meanwhile his Red Bull equivalent struggles at 7.63, not qualifying higher than seventh in any of the last 5 events, and as such has not been positioned far enough up the grid to frustrate Hamilton, except briefly in Turkey.
Whether we like it or not, team orders are a part of F1 in 2021. It is, after all, a team sport. As seen in the 2000s, it is extremely difficult to police and no two instances of it are the same, making consistency in punishment virtually impossible. Perhaps the best we can hope for is transparency and honesty from the teams when they have swapped driver positions to benefit their main challenger.
It is almost certain team orders are going to play a part in the final six races of this thrilling championship, but hopefully not a significant one. It would be bitterly disappointing to see such a thrilling season be decided by Bottas or Perez stepping aside rather than Hamilton and Verstappen fighting wheel to wheel.
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