In Sunday’s British F1 GP we saw the season’s first example of the use of team orders. Once a vilified facet of the sport, team orders were banned in 2010, only for them to be allowed once more due to teams using coded messages to issue instructions to their drivers.
With a few laps to go, Mark Webber had closed the gap on Red Bull team-mate Sebastian
Vettel, only to be denied the opportunity to race him. Christian Horner spoke on the radio, “Mark, maintain the gap”. F1 legend Murray Walker referred to the instructions as “the four bitterest words”, and the debate ensued.
Webber was asked in a post-race interview on how he felt after being told not to challenge Vettel:
“I’m not fine with it, no. Of course I ignored the team and I was battling to the end.”
It was later revealed that Webber received four or five similar messages and ignored those too. Regardless of whether Webber raced to the finish or not, the damage has been done. Disagreements with Team Principal Christian Horner have clearly resurfaced. This time last year, Mark Webber was unofficially made Red Bull’ #2 driver when an upgraded front wing was removed from his RB6 car and attached to team-mate – and rival – Vettel’s instead. Vettel went on to qualify in pole position.
BBC F1 reporter Ted Kravitz sought out Horner directly after the race and made the Team Principal sweat in a very curt and frank interview. Horner bore a guilty expression on his face, explaining that his decision to prevent his drivers racing was “the sensible thing to do. With constructors and championship points on the line, was it [a collision] really worth risking over three points?” He went on to justify his actions, saying it’s “what the team expected”. From a fans perspective, it is understandable, but also a hard pill to swallow because, as Damon Hill sympathised:
‘It would have been sad if there was a collision between Sebastian and Mark, but fans want to see racing. You can’t stop drivers racing each other. At the end of the day, that’s what people buy their tickets for’.
Damon Hill was instrumental in the recent enhancements of Silverstone, and will have certainly contributed to the success of the weekend that saw over 122,000 visitors to the new-look circuit. He will no doubt have concerns regarding team orders and their effects on future race attendances. If team orders continue, fans may be less inclined to pay to watch racing drivers not race.
I have no doubt that team orders contributed to the slump in F1’s popularity during
Michael Schumacher’s reign at Ferrari. The seven-time world champion was often gifted race wins when his team-mate Rubens Barrichello was denied the opportunity to race Schumacher. Barrichello’s place as #2 was cemented at the 2002 Austrian GP, where he was ordered to move aside for Schumacher, metres before the chequered flag.
Former F1 driver David Coulthard also shared Hill’s sentiments, referencing his animosity towards McLaren team orders in Australia 1997, which forced him to gift team-mate championship favourite Mika Hakkinen maximum points. Coulthard joked that his psychologist predicted he’d fully recover from the ordeal by no later than 2015.
But as well as criticism, Horner’s actions drew support from former F1 team bosses. Former Team Jordan Manager Eddie Jordan defended the decision, saying “it was the right thing to do”. In the BBC’s F1 Forum, Jake Humphreys quoted Team Williams founder Frank Williams as saying “the company is more important than the driver”. Both clearly understand the embarrassment involved when the team’s drivers collide, as the Red Bull
pair did in the 2010 Turkish GP. Even Murray Walker, who criticised Horner’s actions in the post-race interview show, had to concede that ultimately, drivers are “paid employers who take orders from the boss”.
The drivers and the team obviously don’t see eye to eye on the issue. Unsurprisingly however, Vettel completely understood, “From a team point of view you can understand”. Webber later calmed down and resumed diplomacy, stating the situation would be the same the other way around. Somehow, I don’t think Vettel would be so understanding if he was denied the chance to race.
When David Coulthard asked Christian Horner if ignoring team orders was an option,
Horner replied, “That’s a conversation for behind closed doors”. Tempers have clearly frayed between the two for what could be the last time. With rumours of Hamilton lined up for a seat at Red Bull and Kimi Raikkonen making a return to F1, it might be time for Webber to start looking for a new team.
Such is the damage team orders can inflict.
Mark Webber is one of the fastest drivers on the grid. If he leaves, Christian Horner could soon be finding out the answer to his question, ‘was it really worth three points?’