Red Bull Racing’s apparent decision to stop using team orders must have the rest of the paddock smiling.
Red Bull motorsport advisor Helmut Marko told Germany’s Bild newspaper that “there will be no more team orders by us,” in a move that might be devastating to the team. Essentially, if that’s the decision, it’s an admission that the Red Bull brass can’t control its drivers and trying to get them to toe any line is futile.
Three weeks ago, reigning three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel defied instructions from the Red Bull pit to hold station and instead passed teammate Mark Webber to take the lead in the closing stages of the Malaysian Grand Prix.
The icy scene between the pair in the green room prior to the podium ceremony spoke volumes. All Webber said to Vettel was a curt “Multi-21 Seb,” referring to the team order that told the pair to keep car No. 2 ahead of car No. 1 to the end of the race. It was easily one of the most uncomfortable podiums in recent memory.
Now, part of Marko’s strategy is likely also taking the heat off his boy Vettel, who is the only star to emerge from Red Bull’s driver development program, which the team has spent truckloads of money on. Since Marko took the reins in 1999, Vettel is still the only driver to emerge from the program and go on to win an F1 race.
Although Vettel also pitched in by trying to smooth things over with a sort of apology in the post race press conference, he added napalm to the mix at a sponsor press conference Wednesday by saying: “I can’t apologize for winning because I am paid for that.”
Then, the German told reporters in the paddock on Thursday that disobeying the team’s orders wasn’t a particularly bad thing because Webber didn’t deserve the win.
Webber responded in the Thursday press conference from Shanghai: “If that’s what he thinks then that’s what he thinks, that’s his position on what happened in Malaysia.”
Unfortunately, axing team orders makes it clear that Vettel has free reign to do whatever he likes, while the Australian knows the team will not stand behind him when push comes to shove. Now, that may pump Vettel’s confidence to extreme levels and make a tough and talented driver even harder to beat. But, there’s little doubt the rest of the paddock hopes the situation leads to caustic divisions within the outfit and the breakdown of co-operation between its drivers weakens the three-time constructors champion this weekend and beyond.
For his part, Webber would just like to get back to racing.
“When you’re at the front in Formula One, there’s always stuff going down so it just depends on how much is going down that you’ve got to manage,” he said.
“In the end, for me, I’m looking forward to driving the car here, putting in first gear and driving out of the garage and getting down there to feel what the car’s like on the circuit.”
That said, there’s no doubt that the rest of the top teams will be looking to capitalize on the distractions inside the Red Bull squad this weekend in Shanghai and also looking to find ways to exacerbate the existing rift as the season wears on.
The Red Bull situation is also a stark contrast to the mood at the Mercedes team, which had its own team orders controversy in the Malaysian Grand Prix. While a faster Nico Rosberg held station behind teammate Lewis Hamilton, the young German wasn’t happy about it and insisted on the cool down lap in Malaysia that the team needed to “remember this one.” Obviously, the team soothed his exposed nerves and Rosberg arrived in Shanghai saying the whole thing is ancient history.
“The difficulty was that we hadn’t really discussed them beforehand,” Rosberg said.
“So, important going forward is that everything is discussed and then whichever way it goes, if I’m in front and Lewis is behind then he will respect it and vice versa. Then it’s OK.”
Unlike Red Bull, Mercedes was likely thinking about prior seasons where the perils of not using team orders properly have been effectively demonstrated.
In 2007, McLaren mishandled its two drivers – Fernando Alonso and Hamilton – whose infighting saw both fall short of the title by a single point in a year where the team easily had the season’s best car. Instead of a McLaren world champion, Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen slipped up the middle and snuck away with the hardware.
A similar situation in the Williams team during the 1986 season resulted in both Nigel Mansell and Nelson Piquet taking points away from each other all year, losing the driver’s title to a crafty Alain Prost in the McLaren.
Team orders were banned beginning in 2003 after Ferrari cause a huge controversy by ordering driver Rubens Barrichello to move over in Austria to let reigning world champion Michael Schumacher take the win. At the time, Schumacher already had a 21-point championship lead after only five races driving a clearly dominant Ferrari. At the time drivers got 10 points for a win. Schumacher easily won the title, out-scoring second overall finisher Barrichello by 67 points, 144-77.
Coincidentally, Ferrari is also the team responsible for lifting on the ban on team orders after it used them clumsily to get Alonso maximum points in the 2010 German Grand Prix to help him in the championship battle. On that day, Ferrari had race engineer Rob Smedley send a thinly veiled message to leader Felipe Massa that his second placed teammate “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” Massa allowed Alonso pass with 20 laps to go and let him take the win, leading to a maelstrom of criticism against Ferrari for putting the team ahead of competition.
Ferrari was given a fine for its actions but the sport’s governing Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile decided to make team orders legal again beginning in 2011, mostly because they were being used in secret anyway.
With his driver Alonso seen as a good bet to dethrone Vettel as world champion this year, the irony of his team’s role in bringing discord to the Red Bull camp pleases Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali.
“I have to smile when I think that in the past we were criticized for our philosophy of putting the interests of the team above all else,” Domenicali told Bild.
“I don’t know the facts and the agreements that were made previously. I can only say that I saw one of the saddest podiums of my career [in Malaysia].”
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