The problems with a two-tier championship


The chase for the championship

The chase for the championship

Riccardo Patrese waving the sister Williams of Nigel Mansell by at Magny-Cours in 1992. David Coulthard blending out of the throttle at Melbourne to let Mika Hakkinen win in the other McLaren. A chorus of boos at Austria in 2002 as Rubens Barrichello surrenders victory for Ferrari to team mate Michael Schumacher.

A driver giving up without a fight is an ugly sight that makes a mockery of Formula 1.

We’ve seen it again this year and inevitably it’s sparked a long-running argument. One which never really went away after what happened at Hockenheim, but has increased in volume since Fernando Alonso took over the top of the championship standings in Korea.

But while anti-Ferrari and Alonso vitriol has been in plentiful supply from some quarters, the greater concern is the damage the sport is voluntarily doing to its own image.

Since Hockenheim we’ve been watching a two-tier championship: two teams each backing two drivers versus one team supporting a single driver, and that does not reflect well on Formula 1.

The weak case for team orders

Various arguments are put forward in defence of the so-called “team orders” that have allowed this to happen and none of them are very convincing.

Let’s be clear: we’re not talking about a team having to choose which of its drivers get the only example of a new performance upgrade, we’re talking about a team ordering a driver to give up his chance of winning a race to help his team mate.

The retort that team orders have been around for a long time is no argument for keeping them. It’s hard to think of any comparable examples in mainstream sport where participants allow themselves to be beaten.

Damp-eyed nostalgics recall the days when Peter Collins surrendered his car and his championship hopes to Juan Manuel Fangio, saying “I have plenty of time to win the championship on my own.”

The bit they leave out is that Collins was killed two years later having never won the title.

Another, even more cynical explanation insists that Ferrari were only in the wrong at Hockenheim because what they did was “blatant”. As if it becomes less wrong when it’s made harder to detect.

The idea that you can sweep it all under the carpet and everything will be fine is flawed. Circumstances will inevitably arise where a team will wish to swap the running order of its drivers and there is no subtle means available to them – especially now that refuelling has been banned.

A team sport, a drivers’ sport, or both?

“Team orders have to be allowed because F1 is a team sport”, goes another defence.

The problem with saying “it’s a team sport” is it isn’t true. Nor is it an individual’s sport. Confusingly, it’s both. We have a drivers’ championship and a constructors’ championship.

And this is the root of the problem: while teams have a championship of their own to win it tends to be treated as a “consolation prize” while the real focus of their efforts is making sure one of their drivers wins the drivers’ championship.

One solution could be to scrap the drivers’ championship. But I doubt that would ever happen because more people tune in to see who will win the drivers’ championship than the constructors’.

Ask someone who won the 2009 F1 championship and they’ll answer “Jenson Button“, not “Brawn GP”.

Why a ban is essential

The only realistic solution therefore is to uphold the team orders ban.

The idea that the ban is not enforceable is palpable nonsense. The FIA has access to radio communications, extensive telemetry from the cars and hours of video replays from every race.

In September the World Motor Sport Council had no difficulty in concluding that Ferrari had used team orders and interfered with the race result in Hockenheim.

The only thing that’s missing is a willingness to enforce the rules with meaningful punishments rather than tokenistic fines. Regrettably, the FIA now seems set on scrapping the team orders ban.

This is a great shame. The kind of race manipulation, of which Hockenheim was only the most recent example, is widely and correctly perceived as unsporting.

Who can say a championship is not devalued if it is won by someone who had one fewer competitor than everyone else?

The advantage of not having to compete against the only other person who has the exact same equipment as you cannot be underestimated. This is why the early years of the 2000s were a turn-off for so many.

This brings us back to the distinction between the drivers’ and the constructors’ championship. The teams may spend the money and build the cars, but it’s the drivers who take the risk of driving them.

Felipe Massa knows this all too well – the German Grand Prix was the first anniversary of his horror crash at the Hungaroring.

Why, one might reasonably ask, should a driver like Massa be expected to risk his life to help Alonso win a world championship?


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Thanks to Neil Davies of the Caricature Club for allowing me to use his excellent illustration. See more of Neil’s work on his blog.

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198 comments on The problems with a two-tier championship

  1. Roger Carballo AKA Architrion said on 5th November 2010, 8:46

    Keith… A direct question to you… Why don’t you write this rant against team orders using a better example like Hockenheim 2007? I mean. Ferrari’s mess at Germany is easy to see for an untrained eye… but you should know it’s best to bring something a little bit more complex to enlight your position better.

    I ask you to rewrite your whole article using the Kovalainen-Hamilton 2007 Hockenheim team order… It would look better.

    • You do understand that the Ferrari incident is used as it was so blatant to be undeniable don’t you? The Hamilton Kovalainen incident can not be proven at all (that is not to say that it was or was not a team order though). The only time a order was so blatant before Hockenheim was Ferrari again! Other teams may well be doing it in some way or other but they certainly do it in a much more subtle way. The other thing that makes the Hockenheim order so high profile is that people felt massa deserved to win that race more than anyone else.

    • Younger Hamilton said on 5th November 2010, 9:59

      It was 2008 not 07,There was no German GP in 2007 the Heikki and Lewis incident was the right thing to do Lewis had a much lighter car and was on a different strategy compared to Heikki Lewis still had a realistic chance of winning the race while Heikki didnt.

      Thats why that situation is going up on flames like the Schumi-Rubens Austria 2002 or Fernando-Felipe Germany 2010

      • Younger Hamilton said on 5th November 2010, 10:01

        Thats why that situation is going up on flames like the Schumi-Rubens Austria 2002 or Fernando-Felipe Germany 2010

        Thats why that situation is not going up on flames like the Schumi-Rubens Austria 2002 or Fernando-Felipe Germany 2010

    • What 2007 German Grand Prix?

      And what 2008 German Grand Prix team order? He passed Massa and Piquet easier than Kovalainen, did they move over too?

  2. The only legit argument against Ferrari to me is they forced Felipe to give up a victory when he was also in the competition for the championship. This was wrong.
    But the whole idea of team orders is totally right from the strategic and purely sporting point of view and I admire Ferrari they don’t waste opportunities.

    Yes, it’s against what racing was meant to be, but since there are two cars in one team the modern racing is not individual sport any more. The idealists may not accept this, but they have no argument and just disillusion themselves – why teams cannot work like a team works? (again, not exactly like Ferarri did to Massa this year – it’s important the opponents differentiate those two different things). I was also such idealist until I admit I have no valid arguments.

    If Ferrari wins, they will deserve this title as a team for sure because they did all to win, while McLaren and RedBull can blame only themsleves.

    To sum up – I would ban team orders until a couple of last races of the season.

  3. Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 5th November 2010, 8:53

    Why, one might reasonably ask, should a driver like Massa be expected to risk his life to help Alonso win a world championship?

    Because he wasn’t good enough to win it himself this year. And if he were, Alonso would’ve been asked to do the same for him.

    Let’s put this into perspective, using a nostalgic example (to counter Keith’s 1956 defence): 1958 – Mike Hawthorn wins the championship from Stirling Moss after Phil Hill gives him 2nd place on a team order. This was also the very first year of the WCC. Just as well Hawthorn won it; he was dead before the 1959 season could even get underway.

    F1 was much more dangerous before, yet if anything, team orders was much more prevalent before as well. If it was expected of drivers then, why not now?

  4. Journeyer (@journeyer) said on 5th November 2010, 8:56

    It’s hard to think of any comparable examples in mainstream sport where participants allow themselves to be beaten.

    Every other form of motorsport. It’s prevalent everywhere – WRC, WTCC, MotoGP, NASCAR. Yet it’s perfectly acceptable there.

    The idea that you can sweep it all under the carpet and everything will be fine is flawed. Circumstances will inevitably arise where a team will wish to swap the running order of its drivers and there is no subtle means available to them – especially now that refuelling has been banned.

    I applaud a team that can execute team orders for the right reasons and in the right style. After all, there’s still a mandatory tyre stop…

    • Other sports? See professional cycling, where the designated team leader is supported by his entire team.

      But actually, how many other mainstream sports are there where individuals from the same team compete to win individually and as a team? That’s certainly not football, rugby or cricket where teams win and lose as a team. Nor is is tennis or golf where individuals are generally competing as individuals. And winning, say, the Ryder Cup relies on individuals from one team beating individuals from another team, not each other.

      Olympic-level athletics is one, I suppose. But how many opportunities are there to impose team orders in the 100 metre sprint?

      • BasCB said on 7th November 2010, 12:57

        Think about sports like speed skating, cross country skying etc. where a technical staff from the team (often comercial teams with sponsors) support several athletes directly competing with each other.

        In a way horse racing does have some resemblance as well, although in that sport the betting is so intertwined any suspicion of influencing the results will be closely watched.

  5. Dan Selby said on 5th November 2010, 8:58

    10/10 for that article. It summed it up perfectly.

    I hated it when we had this raft of articles/blogs being uploaded by ‘people in the know’, talking about the day of Peter Collins etc.

    We may as well be saying “Why have colour TV when black and white always worked so well?”.

    I also think it’s a great travesty that the FIA are admitting defeat. You’re right – they have so much access to data that to say it’d be “impossible” to govern is absolute nonsense.

  6. ILoveVettel said on 5th November 2010, 8:58

    Great Job Neil by the way…

  7. Why, one might reasonably ask, should a driver like Massa be expected to risk his life to help Alonso win a world championship?

    I don’t get this at all. Helping another driver has got nothing to do with risking his life.

    This is the real world anyway. If fairness must be applied here, make it 1 driver per team.

  8. well, team orders are common in le mans, cyclism, etc where the team manager decides of the tactics.

    personnally, I think the alonso/hockenheim thing is just insignificant.
    actually, i think the problem is that this story is coming back because of what alonso/ferrari have achieved, coming back from so far in the championship and take the lead.
    well hockenheim didn’t do it all. the others should blame themselves. redbull should have won it already and hamilton did many mistakes under pressure.

    at the end of the day all what matter is winning. incident like austria 2002 are only remembered by F1 fans, 95% of the people remember that ferrari was dominating in 2000/2004. those who care about being fair, following the rules to the letter etc, loose.

    it reminds me the football worldcup. england had a goal refused, and everyone focalised on this. “it is not fair, blablabla”. it became the reason why they didn’t do well in the rest of the competition. no, they lost because they were not good.

  9. The comment section of this article is going to send the site into meltdown……….

  10. Johnny86 said on 5th November 2010, 9:13

    Let me see if i can put my thoughts into words.

    Kimi raikonnen won the 07 title due to Massa moving over in brazil right? Now keith says its Ok to do it because Massa was not in the championship any more. So it didnt hurt Massa’s chances. But my point is it did hurt Hamilton’s chances. He could have won if Massa didnt move over. So was it the right thing ? Keith says it was logical? But if you dont win on your own and dont beat your teammate on your own,then its not deserving,isnt it? Kimi had the advantage which mclaren drivers didnt. Judging by that 2007 was also a two tier championship comparing Ferrari and Mclaren isnt it ?? But you didnt protest it at that time nor did any other media sources.

    So judging by this my reasoning would be that the whole post-hockenheim articles by you were based on fact that massa’s chances were supposedly robbed by ferrari. But ferrari didnt botch a pit stop or so.They may have asked massa to move over. But at the end of day, it was Massa who said that it was his decision to move over. In other words, he surrendered his championship chances or admitted he couldnt win it. He gave up. So a question of two tier doesnt arise so long as 2007 is justified IMO..

  11. jarto said on 5th November 2010, 9:17

    Will you ban the “save fuel” orders when a driver is behind his team mate as well?

    What you are saying is that ferrari team orders should be banned while redbull and mclaren’s team orders should be allowed. Yes, “SAVE FUEL” IS ANOTHER FORM OF TEAM ORDER.

    • Younger Hamilton said on 5th November 2010, 10:05

      The ‘Save fuel’ order means hold position because the Red Bulls were just acting like animals and end up crashing into each other McLaren wanted to avoid that so they did that plus i think though unlikely that they had the Fuel consumption problem before the beginning of the race

    • BasCB said on 7th November 2010, 12:59

      Yes it is an order by the team, who know exactly how much fuel they have in the car and how much they need to actually finish the race with a car running.

      This was rather about the team nervous with their drivers not only enthusiastically risking taking each other out of the race, but actually using the last kg of fuel to dice it out instead of making sure they finish.

  12. Burrows (@) said on 5th November 2010, 9:25

    In it’s current form, it’s unenforceable. Fuel saving and other codewords cannot be proven and are used routinely. It can, and probably is even be done before the race starts

    Even McLaren who claimed not to use them, used to openly admit to allowing Hakkinnen and Coulthard to race to the first bend, only, so the other 98% of the race, they were under team orders not to overtake.

    It seems that people find it unnacceptable only when one driver pulls over for the other early in the championship, and although this is the least palatable, it is no different to, for example deliberately backing slowing down a pursuer in order to help your team mate build up a lead, in both casea one driver compromises his race for the other.

    The only way to do it would be to make it illegal under all circumstances and in all forms. And the only way to do that would be to split the teams in two, with different crews and chinese walls, or to have single drivers per team.

    • Slowing down a pursuer to let a team-mate go has been banned, at least in certain forms, since Belgium 2005.

      It’s a bit like Article 30.8 of the Sporting Regulations: taken literally, it bans anyone going off the track in any way, shape or form, implying a drive-through penalty at minimum every time it happens. Everyone knows that it would be impractical, not to mention silly, to penalise everyone who does it whether they gain time, lose it, are unaffected or turn half their car into carbon fibre fragments in the process*. However, everyone also accepts that it would be a good idea to get everyone in the race to at least try to stay on the track.

      Kerbs, “how many tyres” and extenuating circumstances provide ambiguity, but as a general rule we can work out in both cases when the rule has been broken. Also, the bigger the breach, the easier it is for us to spot. Improvements in seemingly unrelated areas are making it ever more difficult to hide.

      I would argue team orders should be treated as Article 30.8 is (ideally) treated: as a principle where anyone taking advantage from a breach receives an appropriate penalty, proper efforts are made to spot those who take advantage and those breaches where no benefit was attained are left alone.

      * – In case you’re wondering, I can remember at least one instance where following a team order led to this [i]by accident[/i] in Monaco 2002, as well as the deliberate Singapore 2008 one. Hence why the variable results of breaching Article 30.8 did not deter me from using it as an analogy.

    • BasCB said on 7th November 2010, 13:17

      But the fact that McLaren used to order Hakkinen and Coulthard around supports only the fact, that TO have been in the sport in the past.
      McLaren not using team orders nor wanting to favour one of their drivers started to be a thing with Kimmi and Montoya, was highlighted in 2007 with Alonso and Hamilton and this have now spurred them on to go to great efforts from the start of this year to show their new WDC signee (JB) that they are serious and will support both drivers equally.

      It does not go against our (the Fans) plea to really cut them out and have higher quality competition.

  13. Electrolite said on 5th November 2010, 9:27

    HAHA! That picture is amazing!

    What the FIA have struggled to do is clearly define that team orders are illegal, in a concise, quantative and easily interpreted rule. At the minute it states ‘team orders which affect the outcome of a race’ is way too vague. It should be ‘messages to and from the driver and the team, coded or uncoded, that deliberately seek to dictate the outcome of a race…’ etc. It’s the code bit which needs to be sorted out.

  14. Jluis said on 5th November 2010, 9:31

    Q. If you miss out, do you think you will have lost fair and square?
    MW: Yep.
    Q. You’ll have no problem with it?
    MW: Fernando won Hockenheim and was the fastest driver on the day.
    Q. But he wasn’t…
    MW: Absolutely he was. He passed Felipe and pulled away from him, otherwise he probably would’ve crashed into him. If Felipe was 10 seconds down the road, they would never have done that.

    Mark Webber, today.

    • Electrolite said on 5th November 2010, 10:01

      He’s got a point, but Alonso should have passed Felipe by himself.

    • I’ve got big respect for Webber, he’s got such an no nonsence veiw of F1 and says it how it is. Its not politically correct to say Alonso deserved to win in Germany but Webber says it anyway.

    • People have been stuck in second despite being faster than the eventually winner on quite a few previous occasions. That’s F1 aero for you…

      • BasCB said on 7th November 2010, 13:01

        And more often than not we have applauded the guy in front for being as good in keeping the obviously faster one behind him and hailed his defensive driving.

  15. Younger Hamilton said on 5th November 2010, 9:39

    Yeah anyone notice any Biased stuff,the two McLaren drivers are behind the others,Keith whoever made this should have put the cartoons in the Championship standings as of now.By the Way Haha funny cartoons, nice post

    • I couldn’t put the drivers in the championship order they are in now because the team-mates needed to be together for the idea to work. No bias involved ;)

      • Electrolite said on 5th November 2010, 10:03

        Yeah that’s why they’re in the order they are. It also kind of puts them in order of team momentum at the minute and where they are on current form.

    • It’s a bit difficult to do that when they’re running a three-legged race… ;)

    • Ok, now you look at the picture in big format, then maybe you will get what it is about.

      Clue: how is the relationship between the drivers?

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