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. sunseeker said on 5th November 2010, 11:19

    one thing you keith have been overlooking the whole time: for each team in f1 the most important title is drivers championship, no matter that there is constructors as well. marketing and commercial wise drivers champion brings more to the team than constructors, that is why it’s more important.

    the best example is ferrari constructor title in 1999. although they won the team was disappointed because they actually lost – hakkinen won. and that is what everybody remembers.

    that is the reason ferrari backed up alonso over massa in germany, pure mathematics and logic, and they got it absolutely right, alonso is now leading, massa is nowehere.

    everybody remembers the champion AND the car he won it with, that is why f1 never was and never will be individual sport.

    • ferrari tend to of late been more interested in the drivers championship.

      but that is not the case for any other team. remember williams constantly saying it was only the constructors that mattered to him.

  2. Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 5th November 2010, 11:22

    You just did an interview with 3 time WDC and former F1 team owner Jackie Stewart who seems to support team orders… Why didn’t you take him to the floor on team orders? From your interview:

    That cast is set now. I’m sure Alonso went there with a number one status. I’m not against that, by the way – team orders have been going on since the twenties and thirties and they still have a place.

    If you had invested three, four or five hundred million dollars in a team and you thought one driver was capable of winning it more than another driver then I think you’re allowed that prerogative.

  3. earnst said on 5th November 2010, 11:28

    for me and like so many other ferrari fans, constructors championship is more important than drivers title.

    ferrari is an unique team and its name is more famous than any drivers or f1 teams.
    as they also indicated several times wcc is very important for ferrari and if you consider ferrari is at least half of f1, what is important for ferrari means also important for f1.

  4. Red Andy (@red-andy) said on 5th November 2010, 11:30

    I think it’s telling that at the beginning of the article, none of the examples of team orders quoted occurred towards the end of the season. The consensus seems to be that if team orders are applied nearer the end of the year, that makes it acceptable. But – since 2002, I might add – all team orders that interfere with a race result are illegal. There’s no qualifier about when in the season they occur – it’s a blanket ban. Saying (as has been said over and over again) that “Hamilton and Kovalainen were on different strategies” (Hockenheim ’08) is missing the point. It doesn’t matter. The rule is there, it is clear and it was broken. So it’s not that the rule isn’t enforceable, it’s that it isn’t enforced.

    My second point, which I made the other day as well, is that teams nowadays very rarely have a pre-ordained number one and number two driver. McLaren saw in 2008 how having a significantly weaker “support” driver might make the drivers’ title easier to come by, but it can sacrifice the constructors’ title in the process. If team orders are applied then they will be because one driver has been much weaker than the other, to the point where the team considers them realistically (though not necessarily mathematically) out of the championship. So what is that driver doing in front of his “number one” in the first place? In such cases, team orders will necessarily be a rare event.

    But then, we’ve been over all this before. Nothing has changed since Hockenheim, and I doubt many people’s opinions have changed either. I stand by my view that what happened in Germany was no worse than what happened at the same circuit in 2008, or China that year, or Brazil the year before. I also stand by my view that the team orders ban should be lifted. Teams aren’t suddenly going to start fixing races left, right and centre like some people imagine. It might put an end to all of this “coded message” skullduggery that we see these days, but other than that I genuinely don’t think we’d notice any difference.

  5. Burrows (@burrows) said on 5th November 2010, 11:31

    Here’s an idea. Each team is allocated some drivers from a pool at the beginning of the year. This could seeded much like fantasy f1. Therefore the teams won’t care about the drivers championship and won’t use team orders.

    • JCCJCC said on 5th November 2010, 11:38

      Mosley had that same idea some years ago (in 2001 or 2002), his idea was, 20 races -> 20 drivers, each driver does 2 races with each car.
      That seems a litle bit stupid, but certainly the WDC would be won by the best driver, and the WCC by the best team/car.

  6. Alex Bkk (@alex-bkk) said on 5th November 2010, 11:36

    I think I have a solution. Allow team orders and put the No.1 on the WCC and allow the medals system that Bernie proposed to be the reward for the driver. The car that wins the most points and the driver that wins the most races?

  7. The view of most “non-F1-fans” is that F1 is not a “real” sport since everyone is not given the same opportunities with equal technology, equal cars, equal budgets, equal engines. I defend this to “non-F1-fans” by pointing out that, let say, even professional runners in the USA are supported by an army of experts, specialists, sponsors, agencies etc, which if confronted with the poorer resources of, let say, African nations makes even running an “unfair” sport.

    But sometimes the odd Kenyan actually win. Or rather, they win alot. Except for the occasional bizarre underdog story (such as Brawn GP, Vettel’s first win in Toro Rosso or Damian Hill’s “almost” win at Hungary 1997, etc.) there are no “Kenyan wins” in F1. It is not a sport by many standards and even FIA/FOA tends to partially agree since the improvements of the F1 regulations have been described as “improving the show“. F1 tends to be described with the less flattering term “circus” although practically all other sports also involve complex travels all over the world. F1 is even by insiders considered a show, spectacle and circus.

    Whether F1 is a sport or not is a complex discussion. Nevertheless the general view as not being “a fair sport” is indeed a correct one – a F1 world champion tends to also race “the best” i.e. most expensive car, and this is no coincidence.

    I prefer to see F1 as a “unique sport” where technology, budgets, racing drivers and most importantly strategy are interweaved to create a sport where the actual confrontational element i.e. racing becomes “unfair” – but overall is a “sport” or race with multiple dimensions: drivers, technology, business, strategy, politics etc. The effort is indeed “collective” – in lack of better words “a team sport”.

    If we, as Keith, start arguing for ONE perceived inequality (“the team orders”) then you open up for a never ending doomsday discussion about the massive inequalities of this sport: why are the tenfold differences in team budgets? why aren’t there any women drivers? why is only the developed world part of this sport? why are all the driver’s (with some ultra-rare exceptions) white? why do we enjoy watching a sport that pollutes the environment (blatantly so in Singapore with its diesel-powered light system…)? why do we enjoy a sport that epitomises the very cliché essence of ancient regime capitalist decadence? why is the sport governed despotically and owned by a senile 80 year old former gangster? why does a billionaire from a country with millions of people living in utter poverty invest millions in a mediocre F1 team? etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc etc …..

    F1 is odd and unfair. Despite this I love it (worryingly much…)! Building cases of rhetorically isolated aspects such as ”team orders” with arguments of “fairness” and home-brewed ethics is just begging for trouble due to its ridiculous hypocrisy and one-eyed naiveté. And please don’t call me “cynical” just because you prefer to ignore the aforementioned inequalities. Democratising motorsport has been done before: Speedcar Series. That was as exciting as tax law…

  8. sumedh said on 5th November 2010, 11:55

    I think one major aspect Keith has forgotten here that Formula 1 is a business first and a sport later.

    If we list out all the sports of the world in descending order of money spent, Formula 1 will rank very close to the top. And the other sports coming close to F1 in that category happen to be team sports, such as football and basketball. So, the amount of money spent per person is highest in Formula 1. And in business, a strategy which leads to self-destruction is never encouraged. What Ferrari did in Hockenheim makes perfect business sense. Massa was 8th in the championship and was needed to get past 7 drivers in 7 races. There is a higher probability of Jenson Button winning the WDC now than that happening.

    The day one accepts that Formula 1 is not a sport but a business, believe me, it will be much easier for one to accept these sporting embarrassments one sees so frequently in F1.

    Why does F1 have so many more scandals than other sports? Crashgate, Spygate, Liegate, rivals crashing into each others, teams having a veto power over others, teams black-mailing each other to the point that the US GP of 2005 was reduced to farce. The reason for that is simply because the stakes are higher in F1 than in other sports. It is because F1 is a business, not a sport.

    • I’m still not convinced that Ferrari’s move isn’t going to backfire on them. One has to wonder how close they are to losing Massa and possibly Smedley over this incident (a tension that, reading between the lines of di Montezemelo’s comments against Massa a few weeks back, is still there) – and that’s before one starts considering the little cracks that will surely have rippled out. In making that particular order, Ferrari weakened itself. It may not bear the full damage of it this year, but mark my words – it will before 2012…

      If F1 is accepted as a business, it will lose the majority of its audience (because they haven’t tuned in to watch a business – otherwise the TV schedules would be radically different). Being a sport is essential to F1’s survival as a sport and as a business – which is one reason why team orders cannot be openly permitted and why tightening enforcement may become necessary rather than just advisable.

      F1’s many scandals are due to the tensions between the multifarous facets of itself, not because it’s one particular thing or another. It is unlikely anything spanning one category of activity would generate half the scandals F1 does because multiple-element activities find those elements move in different ways, making collisions and awkward drifting apart that create creative tension and dissent along with the innovation and brilliance.

  9. I find it strange that you’ve pretty much recycled the same article every two weeks since Hockenheim. I know you feel pasionately about this but I honestly think every informed F1 fan has already made their mind up on team orders.

    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.

    Its a simple fact that if Massa had deliberately ran wide and allowed Alonso through there would have been conspiracy theories but no uproar, and nothing could be proven. It doesn’t make it more or less right just makes a mockery of any rule.

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

    Like I’ve said before how can what happened in Brazil 2007, which you support, not devalue the championship when it denied Lewis Hamilton a world championship because Kimi Raikkonen didn’t have to every other driver on the track like Lewis did.

    The argument against team orders because the interferes with the integrity of the drivers championship is fair enough in itself, but it becomes incoherent when at the same time you support the conitunued use of team orders in races that decide the WDC.

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

    Well there’s cycling. Watch any tour de france stage wiht a sprint finish and you’ll see teams together for the benifit of one rider. HTC Columbia and Cervélo TestTeam will control the pack and direct their whole efforts towards seeing Mark Cavendish or Thor Hushovd cross the line first.

  10. AgBNYC said on 5th November 2010, 12:17

    Great illustration!

    Unfortunately, Ferrari wish Massa put them in a position to be like McLaren and Red Bull. They desperately needed Massa to take points away from their rivals and the ironic thing is – Alonso has done it on his own this year as much or more than any other driver. Every time one of the other “teams” driver finished ahead of Alonso, it aided the standing of their teammate in the championship as well by taking points away from Alonso.

    Ferrari can run their cars as they see fit. As an extreme example since Massa has been so far behind, Ferrari would have been withing their rights to call Massa in every 10 laps to test new components for next year’s car if they wanted witht the lack of testing etc. Massa is free to hand back his $14million stipend to Ferrari and race for HRT if he wishes…

    I have my own views – and they are much closer to those actually involved in the business of F1 – like Whitmarsh and Webber.

    As Alonso said, he’s rooting for two Massa wins and I believe Ferrari will be very aggressive with Massa in the next two races. IF Massa can do that, the illustration will be not just a work of art, but more accurate as well…

    • Astonished said on 5th November 2010, 23:01

      @AgBNYC, You have your own views, yes, but I fully agree with you, so we share what is “yours” and “mine”, I think many others are also sharing this as “ours” :-)

      Points wise, Fernando is beating Felipe 6,3 and 4,2 times more than Mark is betting Sebastian and Lewis Jenson respectively.

      If you take out 7 points from Fernando and add 7 to Felipe (even though I think it was ok what happened in Hockenheim) this difference is still 5,3 and 3,5 times respectively.

      Fernando would have benefited much more from a stronger Felipe taking points out of rivals than Hockenheim. And this is why two wins from Felipe would be mathematically excellent for Fernando (The only better thing is himself winning, but it is indeed be 3rd to Mark second, than second to a winning Webber.

      And I understand that you can jump of joy if your foe-driver of choice engine blows up, but it is more fun when he goes too wide in a bend… or gets in the gravel at the pit entrance… or crashes in spa when driving alone…. Every time I see one of these “hope the engine blows” I think that somebody is in a rather depressive mood.

      • Astonished said on 5th November 2010, 23:03

        (The only better thing is himself winning, but it is indeed be 3rd to Mark second, than second to a winning Webber.

        (The only better thing is himself winning, but it is indeed better to be 3rd to Mark second, than second to a winning Webber)

  11. Ghostrip said on 5th November 2010, 12:22

    Amother way would be each driver to have a separate pit crew and enaough space for both cars to pit at the same time. Then cut communications to the car. Each driver on its own. and one big screen at start-finish line with current positions and times. Then good drivers wont have to pay. Also give chassis and engines to other people. see which team has good engineers and good drivers.

    • I highly second the separate pits. I’ve been wanting that. Thinking back to when Alonso spoiled Lewis’ race a few years ago at McLaren, that told me enough.
      I’ve seen no other race series where a single car shares a pitbox (ok, there may be a LeMans exception in there, but it is the exception to the rule).
      Pit teams against each other and a lot of the “Team issues” do dissolve.

      However, as there will still be 2 cars owned by the same people, AND a team championship, nothing can truly preclude them from operating in a team manner, especially as it’s implied by being a team competition that they do have team rules.

      Essentially, if you have a team championship, yet, outlaw team orders,, well. That is just entirely illogical in any case.

      I really honestly don’t mind team orders, (there’s no I in team, but there is in Felipe, and he’s a great teammate! (There’s also an I in Barichello!)

      Seriously, either drop team orders along with the team championship and give them individual pits. Otherwise, there’s here to stay!

      • Le Mans and the various sportscar series which can enter cars for it are indeed exceptions, but that’s purely because there are frequently more cars for those events than pitboxes, let alone teams. Which tends to support your suggestion.

  12. Guys, stop it :) This is a multi-million sport and team orders will always exists. Do you really think they care that much about the fans ? Any team, with no exception, would’ve done the same as Ferrari, if they had a suitable chance. None of them had, although I find it funny to think that Button can win the world title again, this is ridiculous, he’s clearly the second driver in the team, just as well as Massa.

  13. Why not keep both championships, but so that the price-money for the drivers championship only a fractional part of that of the constructors championship is. Then teams will undoubtedly focus on the WCC!!!!

    • Noname said on 6th November 2010, 10:24

      It’s not all about the prize money.

    • As far as I know, there’s no money for the teams for the driver’s championship. It’s simply that the marketing boost to the big teams is of more value to them than the income they receive from the constructor’s position. The opposite applies to the smaller teams (even the ones who are doing well in the driver’s title).

  14. this is all getting dull now. mclaren did it in 05 with kimi/montoya more than once. remember spa? ferrari did it in 07 and 08. mclaren did it again in 08.

    why is this forgotten? are some of the fans and press really that naive? or do they just not want fernando to win? which is not the question. when discussing the subject teams and names shouldnt be apart of it as it creates a pathetic bias.

    end of the day the others HAVE(fact!) done it. and if the press dont like it then ok go and report on something else then.

    thats all their is to say really

  15. troutcor said on 5th November 2010, 12:40

    So what does “team” mean? Two guys who happen to be driving cars with similar paint?
    If the beneficiary Button (or, as the BBC announcers insist on screaming every time his car shows up on camera – JENSON BUTTON! – ) this would be a non-story on a Brit site such as this. C’mon. This story is mere anti-Ferrarism, and if not for this team orders b.s., some other complaint would have to be – and would be – found.

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