Why the team orders rule must stay

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Fernando Alonso, Felipe Massa, Ferrari, Hockenheimring, 2010

“Team orders which interfere with a race result are prohibited”, says article 39.1 of the Sporting Regulations.

It’s had little use since it was introduced eight years ago, but on Sunday Ferrari were found to have broken it, given a $100,000 fine and ordered to appear before the World Motor Sports Council.

This has led to criticism of the rule but those who call for it to be scrapped have failed to understand why Sunday’s events were controversial and why a repeat must be prevented.

Massa’s position in the championship

Ferrari justified their decision to let Fernando Alonso past Felipe Massa in terms of what was going on the race – claiming the drivers were under pressure from Sebastian Vettel. But it’s inconceivable the decision would have been taken had the championship situation been reversed.

Here’s how the top half of the drivers’ standings looked before the race:

Position Driver Points
1 Lewis Hamilton 145
2 Jenson Button 133
3 Mark Webber 128
4 Sebastian Vettel 121
5 Fernando Alonso 98
6 Nico Rosberg 90
7 Robert Kubica 83
8 Felipe Massa 67

With a total of 225 points to be won Massa was still in contention for the championship.

The new championship points system makes it harder to compare this situation with what’s happened in years’ past. Because the points on offer has increased it makes Massa’s position appear worse than it is.

The current championship system is very much like last years, but with the points on offer for each position multiplied by 2.5. With that in mind, here’s how the situation would have looked under the 2009 points scheme:

Position Driver Points
1 Lewis Hamilton 65
2 Jenson Button 58
3 Sebastian Vettel 55
4 Mark Webber 53
5 Fernando Alonso 49
6 Nico Rosberg 36
7 Robert Kubica 35
8 Felipe Massa 34

That makes it a little easier to understand that Massa was actually not that far behind his team mate at all. Had Ferrari not taken his win off him, the pair would now be fifth and sixth in the drivers’ championship with a win apiece.

We could argue what point a driver is not “realistically” likely to win a championship until the cows come home. The fact of the matter is, no-one can ever say for sure until the championship is over.

Yes, Massa has been largely behind his team mate so far this year. But sometimes the balance of power shifts within a team – like it did at Brawn last year.

Just three years ago, Kimi R??ikk??nen overcame a deficit equal to 1.7 wins in two races to win the championship. In 1976, James Hunt clawed back a deficit of 3.88 wins over seven races to become champion (helped by rival Niki Lauda missing three races due to injury).

Massa was 3.1 wins behind with nine races left on Saturday evening. A long way behind, yes, but other drivers came from further behind to win the championship.

Why the championship situation matters

Ferrari also used team orders in two of the last three seasons – putting R??ikk??nen ahead of Massa in the 2007 Brazilian Grand Prix, and vice-versa at the 2008 Chinese Grand Prix.

On neither occasion did they attract anything like the kind of criticism they received last weekend.

Why? Because in both cases the driver who was giving up the place was no longer in a position to be able to win the world championship.

This is a crucial distinction. Part of the reason so many criticised Ferrari (77% in a poll of over 2,500 on this site) is because they expect drivers to be allowed to challenge for the championship as long as they are mathematically in the running.

That is an entirely reasonable expectation – people want the driver who wins the championship to have deserved it, and not just because his team mate was sacrificed.

F1 must understand this if it is to prevent repeats of the kind of criticism it attracted on Sunday.

How team radio played a role

Since article 39.1 was introduced in 2008 there have been other occasions where it seems very likely that team orders were used on drivers when both were in contention for the championship.

Lewis Hamilton charged past Heikki Kovalainen with little difficulty at the same circuit in 2008. Also that year Nick Heidfeld put up little resistance to Robert Kubica’s pass – which effectively put him in the lead of the race – in Canada.

It’s worth remembering that on both occasions the two pairs of drivers were on different strategies. Nor had the lead driver spent the entire race in front of the driver behind him.

But the most significant reason why these examples failed to attract criticism the same way Ferrari’s did was that on Sunday we were able to hear Ferrari’s thinly-veiled instructions to Massa as they were issued. This was not the case in 2008.

Now fans are able to hear the radio of all the teams future team orders will attract the same kind of criticism – if the FIA does not step in to prevent it.

A clear team order

When it came, Ferrari’s coded message to Massa was unmistakeably a team order.

To begin with, it was a dead giveaway that the team felt the need to tell Massa “Alonso is faster than you”. It clearly was not an attempt to help Massa go faster, the only possible positive interpretation of that comment, because it offered no indication of how he might find the lost time to Alonso.

Here’s an example of what a genuine message explaining the pace of other drivers looks like. During the same race Hamilton asked his team what the cars behind him (the first of which was his team mate) were doing. The reply came back:

Cars behind are matching our pace. Jenson slightly quicker in first sector, we’re slightly quicker in last sector.

Massa’s unhelpful instruction came with the pointed question “do you understand” added on the end, making it clear there was a subtext to the message.

Then, to cap it all, Massa’s race engineer Rob Smedley apologised to him. Some claimed this act gave the game away. But it had become obvious long before then what was really going on.

Why the team orders rules must stay

In reaction to the controversy some prominent figures including Bernie Ecclestone and Martin Brundle have called for the team orders ban to be scrapped.

This would be a grave mistake which would lead to worse controversies that would further damage the image of Formula One.

It would open the way for even more contentious acts of race-fixing, similar to those we saw at Suzuka and Jerez in 1997. Surely we don’t want a Formula One where half the drivers on the track are only there to hold up the other drivers for the benefit of their team mate?

Yes, team orders have always been a part of F1. And no, I don’t believe they can or should be eradicated completely.

But as increasing transparency in F1 put the teams’ every move under scrutiny those that try to manipulate the championship will only bring Formula One into disrepute.

It’s clear from the vehement reaction to Austria 2002 and Germany 2010, and the muted response to Brazil 2007 and China 2008, that fans have far less objection to team orders being used when one driver is out of the running for the championship.

But they expect teams to allow their drivers to compete for the championship as long as both are in contention. It’s clear F1 needs a rule to enforce that and I see no reason why the existing article 39.1 can’t be updated to do so.

That is the best way to prevent future rows over team orders and safeguard the integrity of the world championship.

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343 comments on Why the team orders rule must stay

  1. zac.maki said on 27th July 2010, 15:06

    if the points are achieved with team orders,there should be only a “champion team” no individual champions.

  2. How about this – the rule is that team orders are illegal unless one driver is mathematically out of contention for the title OR if the team declare before a race begins (hell, before a championship begins if they want to) that one driver is preferred over another. In either of those situations they can do what they like re team orders.

    It’d be interesting to see which teams made a declaration of favouritism early and which leave it to the maths. Ferrari would most likely blink first ;).

  3. Paul said on 27th July 2010, 15:18

    I think that the concept of “team order” must be clarified. In the past and also this year, some teams decided that the driver in front after 1st lap, or 1st pit stop, shouldn’t be attacked by the teammate, isn’t this a team order??
    Or telling a driver that his engine temperatures are too high right when he’s attacking his team mate (Button on Hamilton this year) isn’t a team order?? Maybe it is.

    What Ferrari made on sunday is terrible in the way they managed it, but I think the problem is that Massa didn’t respect an agreement made before the race and the team had to remind him what to do… in a “rookie” way…
    Otherwise, why Alonso said “this is ridiculous” when he tried to overtake Massa??

    • luca said on 27th July 2010, 16:34

      I agree fully with your opinion stated.
      It is easier to see other people’s weaknesses than your own.

  4. Cyclops said on 27th July 2010, 15:23

    So Keith suggests amending the rule, so that team orders would remain illegal when both drivers are still title contenders… does it mean that messing with the results in teams which don’t fight for the titles is “lesser evil”? I don’t buy it. Either we act on the principal that messing with results by arbitrary order to the drivers to switch positions is BAD, or we don’t. As Keith pointed out, TO’s did not bring such controversies when they were used on lower profile drivers. Well this means that not only the teams, drivers and other people directly involved in the sport are hypocritical, but the fans and experts are as well. Sorry, but you can’t be against TO’s in some cases and allow it in other, same as you can’t be little bit pregnant.

    I personally find TO’s disgusting all the way, It doesn’t matter whether they are used by Ferrari or Torro Rosso. As much as I hate it, I realize that they are inevitable as long as there is any contact with the driver possible. So, as we really cannot get rid of them, we should scrap out the rule which never be obeyed, and get used to the dirty and disgraceful part of racing.

    • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th July 2010, 15:26

      As Keith pointed out, [team orders] did not bring such controversies when they were used on lower profile drivers.

      I didn’t say that.

      • Cyclops said on 27th July 2010, 18:08

        You said that Brazil 2007 and China 2008 brought far less objection from the fans, due to the fact that drivers involved didn’t fight for the championship. And that’s what I meant – when you mess with two guys who theoretically fight for WDC the public is fuming. When the very same thing happens to drivers not directly involved in the title fight it suddenly becomes less severe… but it’s not, it’s the same act of artificially altering the race result. So either condemn it all or allow it all.

        • Keith Collantine (@keithcollantine) said on 27th July 2010, 18:19

          OK I see what you mean now.

          But I don’t agree with you. There’s a difference between telling a driver to support his team mate when that driver’s championship chances are over, and telling him to give up when he’s still in the running for the championship, and I think a lot of people appreciate that.

    • Charles Carroll said on 27th July 2010, 15:28

      “…and get used to the dirty and disgraceful”

      Wow. What a sad treatise not only on sport, but on society in general. Just give up, eh? Just quit fighting what is clearly wrong and bad for the sport? Just look the other way and hope it goes away?

      Well, if that is the plan of action, it won’t be long until F1 simply goes away as well. If no one is watching, there is no money. If there is no money. there is no F1.

      FYI, Bernie and Ferrari won’t care if the sport folds. Their coffers are full.

      • Cyclops said on 27th July 2010, 18:11

        Sorry, but F1 is not a fairytale and has never been. The amount of dirt, cheating and unfairness involved in the sport is enormous. If you want a clean competition ruled by some kind of code of honor, you should search somewhere else. I know it’s cruel and cynical, but that’s racing.

        • Charles Carroll said on 27th July 2010, 18:35

          Oh, don’t get me wrong. I work in sport. I have seen more needles and crime than the average police officer in Detroit.

          But that doesn’t mean I accept it and turn the other way.

          I guess we disagree on this.

  5. A Singh said on 27th July 2010, 15:44

    Absolutely right Keith, well put.

    Massa had the win – he earnt it at turn 1 and as a result could have suddenly changed his season around.

  6. Charles Carroll said on 27th July 2010, 15:55

    For me, it comes down to this.

    If Massa and Alonso were allowed to race, we perhaps might have seen an epic battle until the last lap, with Vettel thrown in for good measure. If not epic, at least more interesting than watching Alonso sashay past his team mate for a manufactured win.

    I feel cheated out of a good race. It is not the breaking of rules per say, but the fact that by doing so, they possibly ruined a great race. The ratings for this race were abysmal on this site. If all races were like this one and Bahrain, no one would be watching by now.

    The rule not only must stay in place, it must be enforced. Ferrari should be stripped of their points and win. Only then will teams avoid this type of behavior.

    Face it, they cheated ALL of us out of a good race. Even Ferrari fans, who deserve to see their drivers (who are some of the best in the sport) battle it out. Even if I bled red and gold and lived in Italy, I would still feel cheated on this.

  7. Harry said on 27th July 2010, 15:58

    I feel most on here are missing the point, and conclusion of another well- written article by Keith.

    The debate isn’t really a case of why was further ahead of who etc. But what the ban on the ban on team orders would do (if you get me).

    Keith recognises that team orders can never be truly eradicated, but it does make the sport better. This is the first truly shocking and controversial case to hit the sport since 2002. If that ban had not come in, we would have seen all manner of farcical situations arising in the tight championships we’ve had.

    We don’t want to hear an engineer telling a driver to pull over or slow down or hold up the opposittion at every race.

  8. Chippie said on 27th July 2010, 16:02

    For me, the bottom line is that team orders bully the second driver, and that alone warrants them being banned. Ferrari have set a dangerous precedent now, lets say Massa now leads every single race from now until Abu Dhabi, with Alonso coming in second every time. Ferrari would have Massa let Alonso past every time (because – obviously – Alonso has a better chance of winning the championship). This would grant Alonso a handful of victories and a world championship that he hasn’t truly earned himself, and that should rightfully be Massa’s. The team could be subtly offering Massa a new contract or something, bullying Massa into ‘handing over’ the championship to Alonso. Massa isn’t just a number 2, he’s a racing driver who was robbed on Sunday of a victory that was rightfully his.

    My final point is to commend drivers with honour. This might sound weird but in days like these we need to commend drivers who – without any orders given to them – act in a proper and respectable fashion, taking the spirit of the sport ahead of their own success. I’m talking here about David Coulthard in Montreal 1998. He and Hakkinen (team-mates)were keen not to take each other off in the race (they lined up 1st and 2nd) and so had an agreement that whomever went through turn 1 first would win the race, Hakkinen went through first and both McLaren’s stormed off into the distance. Then, Hakkinen accidentally came into the pits when someone tapped into the McLaren team radio, handing the lead to Coulthard. Coulthard understood what was happening and so with a few laps left and plenty of time from the following drivers, let Hakkinen back through. Coulthard honored a pre-race agreement and in doing so possibly lost himself the opportunity to win the championship. It’s now such a damned shame that Coulthard is the man making noises to bring team orders back.

  9. Derek said on 27th July 2010, 16:18

    They could have told Massa to go to save fuel mode whilst letting Alonso continue at full speed to let him pass. The driver already know they must not take eachother out! How many times have we heard “Save fuel” this season. No one would have been the wiser.

    • DaveW said on 27th July 2010, 18:25

      Precisely. The problem here is that Ferrari have violated an important taboo and stuck their finger in the eyes of the FIA and the others teams who try to maintain this careful balance between team work and preserving a bona fide race on the track.

  10. Luis said on 27th July 2010, 16:28

    All teams must be ashamed of team orders affecting race results.

    This race fixture is the worst I’ve ever seen since Singapore 2008, curiously favouring the same Alonso.

    I feel pity for Massa. First because he’s been told to give up a victory, second because he aknowledged that he was slower and ultimately because he obbeyed the order.

    The old generation of Brazilian drivers would never do that: Fitipaldi, Piquet (Father) and Senna.

  11. Alex said on 27th July 2010, 16:41

    Keith, I completely agree with you that access to team’s radios is one of the main reasons this controversy even exists. I myself enjoy it, so hopefully they won’t limit it again.

    However, I think you’re forgetting that several laps before the pass, when Fernando was 3-4 seconds behind Felipe, Smedley was adamant over the radio that Massa had to push to the limit and that he could win the race. It wasn’t until Alonso was right behind him that the so called order was given. And given Felipe’s struggles this year on the harder compounds, and with close to 20 laps to go, I can’t blame them.

    That, coupled with Felipe’s reaction on the track to make it as obvious as possible that he was moving aside, plus Smedley’s subsequent “sorry” comment, make it pretty obvious to me that this was not a planned decision but simply a consequence of how the race was unfolding, and a safer strategy for the two drivers in order to prevent another Vettel-Webber like type incident on the track.

  12. Jack Holt said on 27th July 2010, 16:47

    Nice article Keith. It was obvious from his demeanour afterwards that Massa hadn’t willingly conceded his title bid was over. I’ve no problem with team orders as long as they don’t appear to cheat the deserving teammate, in both the examples you gave they didn’t: in Canada 2008 both BMWs were allowed to race for the win, but on different strategies – Kubica came off best; in Germany 2008 Hamilton went on to win while Kovalainen made no headway and finished a dismal fifth. Neither Heidfeld nor Kovalainen can reasonably claim that team orders compromised their races.

    This time round it was different, the fans were cheated of seeing the deserved race winner on the top step and Massa was forced into the number two role for the rest of the season. It might not be as gratuitous as Austria 2002, but it’s not much better, teams shouldn’t force a driver to abandon hopes of winning the championship, they should wait for him to concede its over before putting him in a supporting role.

  13. Taypicala said on 27th July 2010, 16:53

    Formula 1: a team-sport with hundreds working to let one guy win. But don’t let the team function as a team, that would be use of team orders and that is evil.

  14. SennaRainho said on 27th July 2010, 17:18

    What is so incredibly ironic about the situation is how furious Ferrari and especially Alonso were when Hamilton overtook the safety car. Yes, it might have helped Hamiltons position in the championship but he did receive a penalty WITHIN the race. Ferrari on the other hand receive a monetary penalty for helping their drivers position! Honestly, they couldn’t care less and I am strongly against monetary fines when time, positions and points are involved. The FIA is fumbling and more consistancy would be greatly appreciated. It would be quite simple to introduce standard penalties for standard offences like these. In reality Ferrari ended up buying Alonso’s way forward.

    Sorry, but am I the only one sick and tired of Fernando’s constant wining about the slightest offence of others when the man (boy?) himself seems to be involved in more race fixings, spy scandals, chicane cuttings and you name it – than anyone else?

    Kimi, you can come out now!

    • Yes!! You said it man.

      And everyone let’s be honest, does anyone really care about the constructors championship? People want a human element in sport and it’s the man driving, putting his life on the line that we care about. Yes historical names like Ferrari, McLaren, Williams, Lotus, etc. are good to have, but this is a sport about the drivers and their crew, not a bunch of egotistical ******. Massa is on the up, coming back to his old self and the only thing that stopped him were a bunch of people who forgot what real racing is all about. People who feel more loyalty to their sponsors than to their fans. Who feel more loyalty to themselves than to their sport. Who feel more loyalty to a whining, childish buffoon, than to a true racer who nearly died while driving for them. That is what this issue is about people. It’s about way more than team orders, it’s about the sanctity of a sport that is often not as great as it claims to be. It’s time we as the fans and the media took a stand and demanded our sport be returned to the true pinnacle of world motorsport not the farce it is today.

      I would love to hear Murray Walker or Sterling Moss’s opinions on all this. I’m sure they would agree with Niki Lauda that it’s a damn shame.

  15. Lopes said on 27th July 2010, 17:20

    Suddenly to me it all becomes clear when I see Montezemolo’s wish to have some teams field 3 cars. Having more people on track working towards the Team’s goal.
    Maybe we should instead restrict each team to have only one car and have more teams. I know, not really cost effective for the whole F1 business, but would avoid all this mess.

    • HounslowBusGarage (@hounslowbusgarage) said on 27th July 2010, 21:46

      Regrettably Lopes, I think you may be right. A three car team makes it easier for one driver to ride ‘shotgun’ for another. However, I am still in favour of allowing team orders on the grounds that
      1 They are impossible to completely erradicate.
      2 They are admissable at le Mans (and in ALMS, I think)
      3 They are prevelant in virtually every other team sport on this particular planet.
      4 They are absolutely necessary in my other favourite team sport – cycling.
      I’ve been trying to remember when the FIA outlawed single-car teams. I think it was the early seventies, but I’m not 100% sure of the date or the reasoning. Perhaps it was to bring the entrants onto a more ‘professional team’ basis with a season-long entry requirement instead of a race-by-race singleton entry. Whatever.
      But the result seems to have been the creation of two car teams, some of whom are so efficient that they would like to be three car teams and who would like to operate as a team should, but the FIA will not allow them to do so.

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