Team orders in Formula 1 are a hot topic once again following events in Malaysia
Red Bull teammates at odds after Sebastian Vettel overtakes Mark Webber against team orders
Rubens Barrichello, a deputy to Michael Schumacher at Ferrari, empathizes with Webber
F1 legend Stirling Moss believes there is less respect between drivers in modern racing
It may not be “High Noon,” but the Red Bull team are facing a Shanghai showdown when their two drivers resume rivalries at this weekend’s Chinese Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel has been vilified for ignoring team orders and passing his Red Bull teammate Mark Webber in Malaysia to whisk the win from under the Australian’s nose.
Directly behind the dueling Red Bulls, the opposite scenario was playing out as Nico Rosberg reluctantly obeyed team orders not to overtake his Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton for third place, even though the German appeared to have a quicker car.
The controversial issue of team orders in Formula 1 has once again tested respect between teammates – and ahead of Sunday’s race Vettel said he would probably do it again given he felt Webber had not supported him in the past – and raised question marks over the purity of the sport’s racing.
The willingness to accept team orders often relies on a tacit understanding between the drivers, on their status within the team and how the race will be run.
Former Honda, Brawn and Williams driver Rubens Barrichello – who spent six years as Michael Schumacher’s deputy at Ferrari – explained: “In the team meeting before the race you have to talk about various situations.
“Obviously there is an interest in doing the best for the team,” Barrichello told CNN. “All the team wants to see is if one driver has a problem he will not make it difficult for his teammate.
“If it was agreed before by both drivers that they needed to go lower on revs – and if that is a code for no overtaking – then that is what they had agreed.”
Webber was told to turn down his engine revs after taking the lead in Malaysia. He understood that instruction meant – as Barrichello suggested – he would not be passed by his teammate.
But the fact that Vettel chose to ignore this instruction and run his own race has left serious, unanswered questions over his respect for Webber.
Taking the low road
“I don’t think there’s the same respect now for other drivers,” British racing legend Stirling Moss told CNN.
During his F1 career between 1951-60, Moss would only sign contracts that named him as the team’s number one driver. In his era of racing, that meant if there was a problem with his speed machine, he could simply call in his teammate and take over his car.
There was, however, one exception to Moss’ rule when, in 1955, he signed for Mercedes alongside Argentine great Juan Manuel Fangio.
The pair shared a mutual respect on and off track, says Moss, even though it was “El Maestro” who would capture his third world title at the end of the season.
“When I was at Mercedes with Fangio there were no pit orders at all until we had a 30-second lead over the rest of the field,” Moss recalled.
“When a team had the lead, the number one driver would hold position and not pass him, says Moss.
“I respected Fangio so much that I was just as happy to be number two. I was quite happy to sit right behind him. It didn’t worry me,” he said.
“We were known as the train because I was only about two yards behind him the whole race!”
It’s all different now though, says Moss.
“Because (Red Bull) had specifically said to (Vettel) let Webber have it, that made him a naughty boy but he felt, ‘well dammit, why shouldn’t I win?’ I don’t think he’ll ever repair that damage because he probably thinks ‘well, that’s the way I race.’”
On the other side of the garage, the Malaysia team orders drama may have more emotional, career-defining consequences for Webber, whose Red Bull contract expires at the end of the season.
Barrichello can empathize with Webber’s position as he considers his perpetual role as Red Bull’s “number two” driver.
The Brazilian was famously forced to cede first place to Schumacher by Ferrari in the controversial 2002 Austrian Grand Prix. It was the start of a long period of reflection for Barrichello.
“In my case in Austria there were eight laps of conversation because they told me that I should do something that was not agreed,” he explained.
Because of what happened in Austria, people think there was something that was written in his contract. But there wasn’t, says Barrichello.
“The year before in Austria I had let Michael by when I was second and he was third and I had that conversation with the team afterwards when I said: ‘Listen, what would happen if I was first?’ And they said: ‘We would never ask you that if you were first,’” he explains.
“And then it was exactly the case the following year in 2002. I refused to do it until the penultimate corner because it was not agreed.
“It was very hard, it was absolutely very, very hard. I really tried to give my very best to see if the team would ultimately change the philosophy.”
It was the reason why the Brazilian quit his Ferrari contract one year early in 2005.
“I saw that there was no winning scenario, the case was lost,” he said.
That career-defining moment for Barrichello also led to a decision by the sport’s governing body, the FIA, to ban team orders that directly affected the outcome of a race.
Ironically, it was another infamous incident between two Ferrari drivers in 2010 – when Felipe Massa was told to surrender the lead to teammate Fernando Alonso – that led to a ban on team orders being stripped from the rulebook in 2011.
There was simply no point trying to police something that has always been an intrinsic part of the sport.
Teams before drivers
Team orders have always existed in F1 because, in simple terms, teams also want to be happy – and that often means making money.
It is, after all, the teams who finance the drivers’ fun and it is their brand and sponsors who they are protecting.
When the top teams are spending $1m a day it makes business sense to protect that investment by not allowing drivers to race freely if there is a danger that in the heat of the moment both cars could take each other out of the race.
“The team has always been the most important thing,” said Moss.
“I drove for teams like Mercedes and Maserati and at one time I drove my own car which meant I could do what the hell I liked!” he said.
“But once you’re with a company you really have to do what they tell you to. It’s a professional business with very big money, which it wasn’t (when I drove). Drivers are being paid like film stars now.”
This constant clamor of commercial team interests means the men at the wheel of the world’s fastest cars often have to suppress their racing instincts.
That is exactly what Rosberg did in Malaysia and exactly what Vettel chose not to do.
Do F1 drivers simply have to accept that when it comes to racing it is the team who ultimately decides how a race is run?
“I don’t think drivers accept that,” says Barrichello.
“There are racetracks when one driver can do better than another and there should be freedom for them to decide that. They should be allowed to fight.”
Moss, meanwhile, understands Vettel’s racing instincts.
“I suppose he was a naughty boy,” Moss says, “but he is a racing driver who’s paid to go fast.
“I’m glad I raced when I did and not now because the pleasure was so much more then and the racing certainly was purer.”
Few of F1’s global television audience of half-a-billion fans would disagree with Moss. Who wants to watch races that have been massaged and manipulated by team orders?
But the furore across global media outlets and social media sites following the Malaysian GP also proved F1 fans balked at the unsporting flavor of Vettel’s victory — even if he was doing what a triple world champion is supposed to do, race.
There appears to be a thin divide between team orders that protect a worthy longtime leader and instructions that see him denied the taste of champagne from the top step of the podium.
Vettel, Webber and Red Bull will begin to find out how much crossing that line in Malaysia has hurt them when they reunite in Shanghai.