Same Old Story, Felipe: Can You Confirm You Understood The Message?

Photo © Williams F1 Team

Felipe Massa set a new personal record at the Malaysian Grand Prix by being the lucky recipient of team orders at the second round of the season. Massa, who I’m sure breathed a sigh of relief after moving from Ferrari, was ordered to move over for team-mate Bottas as the race came to a conclusion and it became clear that Felipe could not catch sixth-placed Jenson Button, while Bottas might be able to. He refused to, despite the constant pleas requests by his team, and so they eventually told Valtteri to try to fight his way past. Inevitably the race came to an end and Bottas was still behind: Felipe defended his decision, Bottas bemoaned the lost opportunity and Claire Williams smiled awkwardly as she tried to assure the world’s media that the team wasn’t somewhat angry over the issue.

Ironically, the episode played out on a track which, I’m sure, is now forever connected with “multi-21”, the controversial team orders that Red Bull put into play against Sebastian Vettel last year. Webber was leading and Vettel was a close second. After the team ordered both cars to power down their engines, given the lead over their competitors, Vettel used the opportunity to keep his engine on a higher power and challenge Webber for the lead, to the soundtrack of Christian Horner’s desperate cries to stop, for fear of a repeat of the Turkish Grand Prix in ’10 when the team lost a 1-2 after Vettel T-boned Webber and took himself out of the race during an overtake.

Back to Williams, however, and maybe Claire was telling the truth. Then again, maybe she wasn’t. In my opinion I’d imagine that her assurance was a little white lie. The fact of the matter is, you can’t be seen to have no control over your drivers.

Clearly I’m not a team-principal, so my opinion will likely differ to that of Claire Williams or Christian Horner, for example, on the topic, but I would vehemently defend a driver’s right to blatantly ignore a team order. And, of course, a driver’s decision to ignore orders comes with a very high risk: that he could have a P45 sent through his letterbox in the not-too-distant future.

So as someone who doesn’t need to worry about sponsors or the potential for a huge loss of revenue if my two drivers crash, or someone who doesn’t have to worry about losing their much fought for seat in Formula One due to the absolute determination to finish ninth instead of tenth, I feel that team orders should be thrown away with. Team orders have been legal since 2011 after the FIA reacted to Felipe Massa’s similarly controversial team order at the Hockenheimring in 2010. When Felipe was told to move over from the lead for his relatively new team-mate, Fernando Alonso, he pretended the radio had conveniently stopped working. His engineer, Rob Smedley, was told to give him the order and told him, pretty obviously, “Felipe: Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm that you understood the message?”. Felipe understood and moved over for Alonso, making it as obvious as he could, a few laps later.

Photo © Scuderia Ferrari

Team orders had been illegal since the same team used team orders to Schumacher’s advantage against Rubens Barrichello in 2002. Finally the FIA admitted that teams were probably issuing hidden orders anyways (“Heikki: Lewis is on the pogo, Lewis is on the pogo”, for example). Unfortunately McLaren have never told their driver that a team-mate is “on the pogo”, but there’s still time…

In an era dominated by tyre conservation and fuel management, which already severely hampers the driver’s ability to just get in a car and race the other drivers, surely we don’t need a third factor to make the already artificial (see also: DRS) racing even more fabricated. This is why I was pleased that Felipe openly objected to the orders. Granted, one could argue that the team comes first, but for the fans watching, it made for great action in what was an otherwise stagnant race.

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