The problems with a two-tier championship

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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. MacLeod said on 5th November 2010, 9:53

    When are teams going to introduce driver nr. 1 and driver nr. 2 (or 1B) Just every teams this is our driver nr. 1 and that is our teammate. It will make everything much more easier and discussion of teamorders is gone. If there is a moment of a error of driver nr.1 the teamdriver will gladly move over.
    Or if there is a ban on teamorder the teamdriver will make a brake mistake. Same results

  2. RobR (@robr) said on 5th November 2010, 10:15

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

    Why should a driver risk his life just to come last in a Hispania? They do it anyway…

  3. mastakink said on 5th November 2010, 10:20

    AWESOME PICTURE!!! HAHAHAHAAAA

    From a F1, Ferrari and Alonso fan…what can I say?

    I love pure racing and I would prefer Alonso would overtake Massa by his own in Germany. For me that was a team order, team order are banned and I think Ferrari were very lucky with such a little fine.

    But when you have two drivers on a single team and overtake is real hard on this aerodynamics times and the WDC is the main target… I try to put behind the wall on the skin of team principal and… I don’t want a RBR-Turkey incident.

    The FIA has the team radios, video footage, everything to detect team orders…really? The team can give orders before the race to their drivers, they don’t need radio or coded messages, is as simple as ‘I you are in front of your teammate at the ending laps, let him go through’ And the driver only has to say it was his own decision for the benefit of the team. Team orders are imposible to eradicate

    There are many motor sports where team orders are allowed, are their champions unfair?

  4. rampante (@rampante) said on 5th November 2010, 10:30

    Team orders exist, always have and always will, legal or not. If there is a complete ban do teams then have to prove in court that a pit lane engineer dropped a wheel nut by accident or a driver deliberately went wide on a corner? What happens in football when a striker passes a ball to a team mate in front of goal instead of shooting himself, ban him as well? Can we let it go please, it’s been going on much longer than most people on this site.

    • HewisLamilton said on 5th November 2010, 15:14

      I’ve noticed that the articles that draw the most posts and thus site traffic are the ones regarding team orders. Not a bad idea for Keith to keep writing articles about such an obvious contraversy that draws so many people.

      (I agree with you by the way)

  5. fyujj said on 5th November 2010, 10:31

    Just an example of how subjective this is: in 2008 Kovalainen was in the strongest team and had one only objective, to race the other teams and to let Hamilton past. This in Germany led to Hamilton winning the race instead of finishing in fourth (just watch the race if anyone is in doubt of that, Hamilton didn’t have a car capable of overtaking Kov – due to their specific setups, Hamilton’s was fastest but Kov’s was better in the infield where the overtaking could be made or avoided).
    Even so, in this community of F1 lovers one see from the comments that some people don’t take that in account just because they root for Hamilton. It’s an emotional support from all of us and that really makes reason blind, or selectively blind.
    So if the teams are going to have to have a good first and second driver or whatever their tactics will be, let’s leave it to them.
    The important thing is a team or a driver not having an unfair advantage and that doesn’t include a first and second driver because that’s how it works. So all these events and discussions are good so we fans become conscious of the state of affairs and don’t feel betrayed.
    I don’t devalue Jenson’s title last year but I’m sure Ross Brawn had to choose someone to back up and he did, right from the beginning of the championship.
    These nuances will evolve, as everything, as the sport evolves. It’s becoming more internationalized and also everything is becoming more open.

  6. Icthyes (@icthyes) said on 5th November 2010, 10:46

    I have no problem with things like the Peter Collins story because he genuinely did it on his own back. The Old Man never gave him an envelop that said “Juan is faster than you”. Like Keith rightly says, it has never been an example of the worth of team orders, even if you wrongly consider it one.

    To me there will always be situations where an actual team order makes sense. But if the FIA want to bring in a total blanket ban of every team order, then the teams know what they’re working with. By not enforcing certain situations, the FIA only have themselves to blame if certain situations are considered okay by the teams and so the arguments of “what about Monaco 2007, Canada/Germany 2008″ are irrelevant to the discussion. Personally I don’t believe in “hold station” orders but the FIA do.

    The latter two situations interfered with genuine racing to a greater or lesser degree, but the rule states that it will be judged to be broken only if interferes with the race result. Clearly it didn’t in the latter example and probably not in the former (given the size of the gaps between the two in question at the end of the race and when the switches took place).

    (I bet someone will pop up with another use of the Turkey myth, so I’ll take the space here to say it was proven to be a genuine fuel issue.)

    So I have to say, wonderful article Keith and spot-on in everything )except the Melbourne example, which was a strange situation indeed because of Hakkinen’s mysterious pit order that McLaren never gave, but I agree it was very unbecoming for there to be an actual switch on the race track). Probably your best ever.

  7. John H said on 5th November 2010, 10:46

    “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”

    For myself, I think that’s what makes F1 unique and unlike any other sport. I really don’t think it’s as big a problem as you feel it is. All these inter-team relationships make the sport more interesting.

  8. earnst said on 5th November 2010, 10:46

    you can not separate drivers from teams, they are all a single body which we call as a team.

    fangio favoured by the teams he drove because ha was clearly the better driver of the team.
    schumacher favoured with the same reason
    so did alonso
    so did hamilton, i think people didnt forget mclaren team favoured hamilton from the race one when kovalainen was driving for them and they did the right thing, no need to remind hamiton won the title just by one point difference at the end of 2008 season.

    favouring a driver or team orders or what else you named it are all same and if you like it or not, they are just part of this game, an integrated part of F1 history and it can not change easily just because some people are not happy.

    teams which are making big noise about equal treatment this season may easily find themselves favouring one of their drivers next season. (mclaren is a good example of it). team orders or favouring a driver is just related with performance of drivers teams have and shaped according the performances of drivers during a season.

    i really hope alonso wins this year with just one point difference to show this is a team sport and as much as being fast tactics are a part of this game.

  9. Poor British guys… it must be frustrating to see that Hamilton’s star doesn’t shine anymore. TEAM ORDERS ARE TO SUPPORT REAL DRIVERS: GO FERNANDO ALONSO!!!!

  10. marco said on 5th November 2010, 10:50

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

    Why? ..because Ferrari pays his salary!!
    So, if he prefers , he could leave and drive a Sauber or a Force India.. :)

    • Randy said on 5th November 2010, 18:38

      Agreed. Thanks to Ferrari, Massa will be able to retire at age 30 without a care in the world. Not bad work if you can get it.

      Ferrari’s handling has been fair this season and in prior seasons as well. Massa was given equal opportunity at the seasons start but simply fell to far behind. Next year will be the same.

      Massa has been frustrated at several points in his Ferrari career but has always acted in the team interest and been rewarded with lucrative contract extensions. I can respect that more then someone taking the money and then whinging after the fact ala’Rubens.

      • Massa is a decent person but he will never be a driver of the caliber of Alonso or Lewis.
        he is fast but he is not an analytical thinker like Alonso or ruthless and pure racer like Lewis.
        He does the work but that is it. So consider himself lucky to get paid so handsomely.
        Oh, by the way that is valid for Ruben as well.
        They are just second tier drivers, no offense intended.

    • BasCB said on 7th November 2010, 13:03

      That is not so much about the salary as it is about Ferrari giving him a car capable of winning.

  11. Dan Thorn (@dan-thorn) said on 5th November 2010, 10:51

    I don’t think a blanket ban on team orders is the solution. As others have said, it could make it difficult to distinguish between what is a team order and what isn’t – ie a driver moving over of his own free will. Teams would likely just find ways around the ban and before long you have the same situation as we’ve had for the last few years.

    Though I don’t condone what happened this year at Hockenheim, I do believe the team orders ban should be banished. As long as I see both drivers within a team given a fair crack at the whip (like Massa and Alonso had this year, unlike Schumacher and Barrichello in 2002) then I can deal with one driver being given preferential treatment in the interest of the team.

    • Dan Thorn (@dan-thorn) said on 5th November 2010, 10:56

      I know, bad form replying to my own post, but I had typed the following and I don’t know what happened to it in the original comment.

      I also don’t believe that team orders devalue a championship. It’s easy to say that someone only won a championship because they had a subservient team mate, but it’s equally easy to say that someone only won because they had a far superior car, because of a favourable mid season rule change, or because their title rival was unlucky etc which could be percieved as ‘devaluing’.

  12. I would say that whatever the rules, team orders will prevail. Teams can ask me as a counselor and I’ll give them multiple ways of informing the driver of the team orders, whatever the FIA control may have from the radios, telemetry, video, etc.

    And your are only talking in the case a driver surrender a victory, but team orders apply also in the middle of the grid every weekend. People seems to be angry only in cases of victory, and forgets the other orders given without complain.

    The only one who can prevent team orders is the driver asked to be overtaken, who can ultimately refuse to follow them. Button is now ready to follow them in favor of Hamilton, Vettel and Webber will follow them in the case any of them crash this weekend, and Massa is now openly going to support Alonso. I’m sure neither of them were directly told to do it, and it doesn’t matter, they’ll do it.

    I would keep the status quo (no teams orders) and I would try to enforce them in case of surrendering a victory, but fining the driver who let the other one to overtake, and not the team neither the winner. It’s their responsibility to refuse those orders, and they have to balance the fine from the FIA or the fine from the team. Those two bad options for the driver could help them as an excuse to refuse in front of their team.

  13. Jonsracing82 said on 5th November 2010, 11:12

    team tactics are rife in Cycling, i think in some situations it’s common sense to imply team orders, hockenheim was perhaps borderline on the rules, but if it happened in the final 2 races when the driver giving up a spot is no longer in contention but his team mate is, is in my view, fair enough

  14. pernand0 said on 5th November 2010, 11:13

    all the teams has used team orders this year!!!!

    even red bull giving two new front wings to vettel and no wing for webber and mclaren… (remenber german GP 2008 kovalainen – hamilton)

  15. pernand0 said on 5th November 2010, 11:14

    alonso best pilot of the year, no doubt!!!

    • mastakink said on 5th November 2010, 11:40

      alonso best pilot of the year, no doubt!!!

      I don’t know I was in a air racing blog…

      or was I in a sailing blog?

      ;-)

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