If Red Bull and McLaren were in any doubt of the advantages of throwing their championship efforts behind one driver, Fernando Alonso’s rise from fifth place before the German Grand Prix to championship leader should cause them to re-evaluate their approach.
As argued here before in two previous articles, the World Motor Sport Council’s decision not to dock Ferrari any points for using team orders means that as long as Red Bull and McLaren choose not to they are merely delaying the inevitable and risk throwing the championship away.
For McLaren, the decision is a complete no-brainer. Neither of their drivers has a particularly good chance of winning the world championship, but Lewis Hamilton is 21 points closer than Jenson Button with 50 left to be won.
Not only that, but Hamilton has been decisively the quicker driver on balance over the whole season.
It may be tempting to draw comparisons between Button’s situation now and Kimi Räikkönen’s with two races to go in 2007 and claim he still has a chance. But the two situations are quite different.
In terms of points Räikkönen, who went on to become champion, was in a slightly better position then than Button is now.
But most significantly, Räikkönen’s team mate Felipe Massa was out of championship contention entirely, whereas Hamilton is clearly a better bet for McLaren than Button at the moment.
McLaren should have started concentrating on Hamilton once the WMSC decision came out ahead of the Italian Grand Prix. If they had, Hamilton could be at least two points better off now (Button could have held station behind him at Suzuka).
And who knows how many other beneficial ways it might have helped Hamilton. Would he have tried that risky pass on Massa at Monza with Button leading, had he known Button was under instruction to help him win?
While McLaren are yet to say whether they will back Hamilton over Button, Christian Horner has already declared Red Bull will continue to support both Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel.
Telling Vettel to get behind Webber’s efforts would be an especially difficult call. While Vettel has lost many points through his own mistakes, car failures have cost him even more – far more than his team mate has suffered. His engine failure in Korea was just the most recent and costly example of many.
But a glance at the points permutations available in the final two races on the Championship Calculator shows the precariousness of Red Bull’s situation.
The seven-point difference between the rewards for finishing first and second versus the three-point gap between second and third are why Red Bull must intervene if Vettel is leading Webber at Brazil with Alonso behind them.
If Vettel won in that situation, Alonso would only need second place in Abu Dhabi to guarantee the title wherever the Red Bull drivers finished. Otherwise they are staking their hopes on finishing one-two in both of the next two races.
If Horner gets this wrong will have to explain to Dietrich Mateschitz how his cars managed to take pole position for almost every race in 2010 without either of their drivers winning the world championship.
As Webber himself put it around the time of the WMSC decision:
Red Bull have a good trophy cabinet but not one like McLaren’s, so it depends on how hungry we are to try and do that.
Throwing a championship effort behind one driver isn’t just about having his team ready to pull over and hand points to him. It influences every part of a team’s operation.
Bringing upgrades to the car becomes a question of keeping one driver well-supplied instead of two. Race strategy revolves around what’s good for one driver instead of keeping both in contention. A sacrificial lamb is a useful thing to have in variable weather conditions.
Above all, it means the team’s driver who is best-placed in the championship knows he faces no threat from the one other driver who should have the best opportunity to take him on: his team mate.
No wonder Alonso has had such a storming second half of the season, and told the press at Korea that’s he happier at Ferrari than he’s ever been anywhere else – including Renault, where he won his two world championships.
I know many people will object to me making the case for teams using team orders. I’d far rather have a championship where teams are prevented from using them and the drivers can sort out the drivers’ championship between themselves, as it should be.
But the die was cast in August when the FIA chose not to enforce the rule banning them. Red Bull and McLaren can win the Marquess of Queensberry world championship if they want, but there’s no prize for that.
- The WMSC decision means McLaren and Red Bull must pick their number ones
- Failing to use Ferrari tactics is destroying Red Bull and McLaren’s title hopes
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