Since Formula 1 began, teams have wrestled over whether to implement team orders or not, but should they have a choice at all?
The practice became so controversial that the FIA banned it in 2002, but they reversed the decision eight years later, and it has been legal ever since.
Whether this is right or not is one of the sport’s biggest debates, so let’s dive in…
To put things simply, team orders are an unfair practice in many ways for various parties and, you could argue, go against the very spirit of the sport.
First of all, they’re not fair on the drivers. A battle between two team-mates should be determined on the track, not with a message like “Fernando is faster than you”. With team orders allowed, there are many occasions where this isn’t the case.
Instead, the team decides the order of their drivers based on what would benefit them the most in terms of the championship. This means that more often than not, “number two” drivers aren’t given a fair shot, regardless of their pace and performance.
They’re also unfair for the fans. Ultimately, the purpose of Formula 1, like any sport, is to entertain people. In this day and age, most fans watching a race would have had to pay to do so, whether it’s from the grandstands or from their living room. Given their investment, they should be getting the best spectacle possible, not Valtteri Bottas moving aside for Lewis Hamilton because he was told to.
Furthermore, it hurts the sport’s chances of gaining new fans. Many people are sceptical about it and don’t see the appeal of watching cars go around a track for two or so hours. If they decide to give it a chance and tune into a race, only to see it decided by what is effectively no different to match-fixing, what are the chances that they’re going to stick around for more? Slim, to say the least.
All three of these factors are part of the same issue; that Formula 1 should be the best drivers in the world driving the best cars in the world fighting wheel to wheel for every position. Those in the cars, risking their lives for their teams every race, deserve the chance to do so, while the many fans paying to watch have a right to see it.
While all of the above is true, the big problem is that there’s little that the sport can do to actually prevent teams from implementing them, as the period when they were banned shows.
If team orders are made illegal, teams will still impose them through subtle codes or not so subtle messages like the one Ferrari gave Massa in Germany 2010. They can also simply give their drivers instructions for various scenarios prior to the race and make sure they follow them. Whatever rules and restrictions the FIA impose, there’s no way in which they can stop this, which begs the questions, what’s the point?
To say they don’t provide any kind of entertainment is also not strictly true. Sure, they often deprive us of hard wheel-to-wheel racing, but you’re lying if you say you don’t enjoy the dramas and scandals that they create.
Seven years on, Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber’s Multi-21 incident is still one of the sport’s most talked about moments. Lewis Hamilton ignoring his team to try and win the title in 2016 made for a truly thrilling finale. It may not be the entertainment you want from F1, but it’s entertainment nonetheless.
Finally, there’s the simple argument that, regardless of the ethical implications, they’re just a part of Formula 1. They’ve been around since the very beginning, when Mercedes would often tell Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss not to attack each other and have been prevalent ever since, deciding races and even championships.
In various sports, managers and coaches tell their players what to do; you could argue that teams telling their drivers what to do is simply the F1 equivalent. If so, what’s the problem?
Despite all the points made above, we would be happy to see team orders cease to exist in Formula 1. Without them, we’d get better and fairer wheel-to-wheel racing between the drivers, and more of it. That’s what the sport should be about. The simple fact is though, it’s just not possible.
Banning them from 2003 to 2010 didn’t by any means get them out of the sport. Along with the aformentioned Alonso-Massa incident, arguably the most controversial case of team orders ever happened in this period; ‘Crashgate’, when Renault told Nelson Piquet Jr to crash for Alonso’s benefit.
Instead of eradicating them, the ban just brought team orders into the spotlight even more when they did happen, which in turn created lots of negative attention towards the sport in general.
In a perfect world, we’d have a field of evenly-matched cars driven by the very best drivers, and team orders could be effectively policed and outlawed. Sadly, it’s never going to happen.
Instead of drawing more attention to them, the sport just has to allow their existence, and we just have to try and enjoy the controversies they create. I mean come on, who didn’t love watching Vettel squirm while Webber tried his best not to punch him?