Team orders cause controversy for Ferrari in Sochi

Team orders have always been a sticky issue in Formula One, evidenced by their ban between 2002 and 2012.

It must be said that this did not totally prevent team orders from being implemented, seen through coded comments such as the radio message received by Felipe Massa urging that ‘Alonso is faster than you’, or during the infamous 2008 Singapore Grand Prix where Renault’s Nelson Piquet Jr. purposefully crashed his car.

Team orders can be frustrating for fans who like to see more exciting racing and overtaking, but they are often necessary for teams to maximise their constructors’ championship points by ensuring their own cars don’t take each other out. The drivers taking each other out as a result of these orders however is a different issue …

Charles Leclerc’s brilliant run of four consecutive poles, and Ferrari’s first one-two finish since the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix, gave Ferrari a taste of being in front of the Mercedes drivers who have once again dominated this season. Understandably, Ferrari did everything they possibly could to orchestrate another one-two finish in Sochi recently. This meant implementing team orders to fend off Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, who qualified second.

Polesitter Leclerc was tasked in giving Sebastian Vettel a tow to pass Hamilton, leaving the two Ferraris at the front of the race. In aiding Vettel down the long straight, Leclerc was also overtaken.  But it had been agreed that Vettel would let Leclerc reclaim his first position that he deserved.  However, this is not what happened as Vettel disobeyed the team orders and refused to let Leclerc reclaim his position as race leader. But did Vettel maliciously disobey team orders or was it for the benefit of the team?

Arguably Vettel, a four-time world champion, could be bitter at the fact that he is no longer seen as the number one Ferrari driver. At the time of writing, young Leclerc sits third in the world championship boasting six pole positions to fifth-placed Vettel’s one pole.

Nevertheless, Leclerc did not necessarily have the lap times needed, with Vettel saying on his team radio ‘tell him to catch up’. It would have been dangerous to do a swap if Leclerc’s pace did not match Vettel’s, especially if Hamilton wasn’t too far behind.

This rebellion against team orders by Vettel is all the more testing for Leclerc, since the Monacan has obeyed team orders throughout this season. Leclerc wanted to catch Vettel in both Australia and Singapore earlier this season. Despite this, he obeyed Ferrari’s orders, remaining behind his colleague after being told not to battle it out. Moreover, in the Chinese Grand Prix, Leclerc was ordered to let Vettel pass him, which he obliged, leading to Vettel finishing on the podium.

Vettel on the other hand has disobeyed orders in the past. Take for example the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix, where the German won the race after refusing to remain behind his then-teammate Mark Webber, justifying his actions by saying: “The bottom line is I was racing, I was faster, I passed him, I won.”

But even if Vettel was faster than Leclerc in Sochi, creating a rift between teammates is not ideal and trust is absolutely crucial between drivers and their teams.  Team spirit is important, with Hamilton claiming it to be one of the main reasons for his success. It is hard to argue against a five-time world champion currently enjoying continued success alongside Valtteri Bottas in the other Mercedes. 2016 World Champion Nico Rosberg has warned that a bitter rivalry between Leclerc and Vettel could lead to a ‘great disaster’.  A feud within Ferrari will not be productive as they endeavour to catch the two Mercedes. In the end, Leclerc can’t be too upset as karma came for Vettel on the 28th lap, where he was forced to retire.

But of course this made the whole scheme futile, and Leclerc finished third behind the two Silver Arrows.


Image: Morio via Wikimedia Commons

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