During the Azerbaijan Grand Prix weekend Kimi Raikkonen shed some useful light on how Ferrari intends to play the team orders game this year.
The team’s approach has varied in past seasons. In Raikkonen’s first spell at Ferrari he and team mate Felipe Massa were only required to move over for the other once they were mathematically out of championship contention. And they did: Massa helped Raikkonen to win the title in 2007 and Raikkonen paid him back the following year, though Massa missed out on the crown.
Two years later, after Raikkonen had left, it was different. Massa was ordered to let Fernando Alonso even when he was still mathematically capable of winning the championship.
According to Raikkonen, that is not the case this year. “When I don’t have a chance mathematically any more to fight for the championship for sure I will help,” he said in Baku. So Sebastian Vettel can forget about his team mate sacrificing a win for him until Raikkonen’s title hopes are finished.
Ferrari’s refusal to move Vettel aside in Hungary, as his hobbled car backed Raikkonen into the pursuing Mercedes, could be taken as a sign they are giving favourable treatment to their strongest championship contender. Particularly as Raikkonen was not allowed to run long in his stint and jump his team mate, as Vettel had done to him in Monaco.
Still the fact remains they have not yet resorted to the ultimate in team orders: Telling one driver to sacrifice a higher finishing position for the other solely because of the championship situation. Nor have they had the opportunity, for that matter.
The same goes for Mercedes. But there is a crucial difference: Raikkonen is likely to be out of championship contention far sooner than either of the Mercedes drivers. This is good news for Vettel’s championship chances.
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Vettel has scored 202 points so far this year to Raikkonen’s 116. Hamilton leads Valtteri Bottas by 188 to 169 – clearly a much closer contest.
Unless there is a drastic change in form on the other side of the summer break, Raikkonen will become unable to beat Vettel in the championship several races before Bottas will be unable to beat Hamilton. We can get a rough idea of when that might be simply by looking at the trends in their points scores so far:
At the current rate, Vettel could get full ‘number one’ status three races before Hamilton. But of course this can change quickly: Bottas could pass Hamilton in the championship at the next round. And reminder that the identity of the championship leader could change, which would alter the arithmetic of which driver gets full ‘number one’ status first.
The usefulness of having a true ‘number two’ team mate shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not something which has figured in the past three seasons as the championship has been a Mercedes-only affair.
With overtaking so difficult this year and the value of track position so high, it’s not hard to see how useful having a dedicated ‘number two’ could be to delay the opposition at a crucial moment. Mercedes were able to use Bottas this way in Spain largely because of the way the cards fell in the race.
Vettel heads into the second half of the season knowing he has the championship lead but a car which is potentially slower on the majority of the remaining tracks. He’s had a few weeks to contemplate how best to employ his team mate when the time comes. Expect him to exploit the advantage to its fullest.
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