Do Champions Need Team Orders?

Atlas F1

Do Champions Need Team Orders?

by Ewan M. Tytler, U.S.A.

1998 is turning into the year of team orders. Personally, I always felt that this devalues Grand Prix racing and indeed many Grand Prix fans hate it. The booing of the crowd at the opening Grand Prix of the year in Melbourne, where David Coulthard allowed his team mater Mika Hakkinen to pass him for the win of the race because of an agreement they cut prior to the race, was unprecedented in Formula 1. If the crowd wanted to see fixed results they would have watch wrestling.

Team orders and fixed results do the "winner" no favors because there will always be the nagging doubt in his mind, "Did I really deserve to win?" The all-time great Grand Prix drivers like Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Nike Lauda, Stirling Moss, Ronnie Peterson, Jochen Rindt and Jackie Stewart did not need team orders to win races or World Championships. Can a driver who wins under team orders be regarded with the same reverence as a driver who wins without team assistance?

Prior to 1950, team orders were everything, as it was a Manufacturers championship. However, in most of the post-1950 years, team orders had little impact on the results as in 1982, when the champion, Keke Rosberg, was one of eleven drivers who won a Grand Prix that year. Only in seasons when a single team produced a dominant car have team orders become an issue. 1998 is unusual in that there are two dominant teams with strict team orders. 1998 is also unusual because there are only three active world champions (Hill, Schumacher and Villeneuve) but there are only four drivers with the skill, experience and equipment to win the championship (Coulthard, Hakkinen, Irvine and Michael Schumacher). What more, the majority of drivers are young and lack experience.

Since neither Coulthard nor Hakkinen have ever won the World Championship, it is possible to impose team orders on them, contrary, I am sure, to Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost who were team "mates" at McLaren in 1988, and any suggestion of team orders would have met with a stoney silence from the two of them. Furthermore, Neither of the two ever perceived their job as "bringing the team as many points", which is what Coulthard said to his defence after the Melbourne Grand Prix.

1978 was another year of team orders. Colin Chapman chose Mario Andretti as his number one driver, with Ronnie Peterson being number two. This meant that Andretti would probably be the World Champion, since Chapman's Lotus 78 and 79 were far superior to any other Formula One car at that time. Every time the two Lotuses were circulating, Ronnie Peterson was ordered to stay behind Mario Andretti. When the Lotus 79 became available at the Belgian Grand Prix, only Andretti got the newer car. Peterson had to wait until the next GP at Spain to get a Lotus 79. There were four Lotus 1-2 victories, each time Andretti led Peterson home. Peterson was only allowed to win two Grand Prix, at South Africa when he lapped Andretti and Austria where Andretti did not finish. Ronnie Peterson was killed at Monza in 1978 and he will go down in the history books as (arguably) the greatest Grand Prix driver who never won a world championship. Mario Andretti is probably the world's most versatile racing driver, but because of their team orders his detractors can say that he needed team orders to win a Formula One World Championship.

Ron Dennis's management of McLaren in 1997 and 1998 is very similar to Chapman's. Jerez 1997, David Coulthard was ordered to move over to let Mika Hakkinen have his first Grand Prix victory. Over the winter, McLaren designed and constructed the MP4-13, a supreme F1 car. Melbourne, 1998, Coulthard was again asked to move over to allow Hakkinen to win, after a mistake in the pits lost time for Hakkinen. It was later disclosed that there was a "gentleman's agreement" for the first man through the first corner to win, who was, of course, Hakkinen. The same agreement was to be held at Interlagos, where, once again, Hakkinen was the first through corner one.

David Coulthard was allowed to win at Imola, while Mika Hakkinen retired. At Magny-Cours, Coulthard was the pit-lane victim when the refueling rig failed. At the A-1 Ring, Coulthard came up from last to second, setting fastest lap. However, McLaren did not ask Hakkinen to slow down and move over to let Coulthard past to make up for the refueling fiasco at Magny-Cours. At Hockenheim, Coulthard stayed behind Hakkinen's obviously sick McLaren after again setting fastest lap. Mika Hakkinen seemed to be a bit embarrassed at the press conference.

There have been five McLaren 1-2 victories in 1998 and each time Hakkinen has been ahead of Coulthard. Of Mika Hakkinen's seven GP wins, four have been facilitated by David Coulthard.

Ferrari too has a long history of team orders and politics, a well known fact. In 1998, Ferrari's tactics are not much different than McLaren's, with Eddie Irvine developing fake brake fade at the A-1 Ring to let Michael Schumacher past. However, this would have been somewhat acceptable if Eddie Irvine had not been asked to slow down. Had Michael Schumacher caught up with him and it was clear that Eddie was holding him up, everyone would have understood Jean Todt asking Eddie to let Michael past.

Coulthard, Hakkinen and Schumacher have different driving styles that suit different circuits. Peter Windsor, the familiar pit lane TV reporter, and a former Williams employee, analyzed the three's driving styles in the June 1997 issue of "F1 Racing" Magazine. He concluded that Coulthard is a "classic" driver, like Jacques Villeneuve, Senna and Stewart. These drivers take the fastest line around the circuit. Hakkinen is an "Oversteering" driver like Alesi, Hill (father and son), Peterson and Rosberg. These drivers drive fastest on slippery surfaces and enjoy tail-happy cars. Michael Schumacher is a "front-end" driver like his younger brother Ralf, his teammate Eddie Irvine, Prost and Clark. These drivers take the shortest way around the track and are often fastest on tight, "sticky" tracks. (The front-end driver is a slave to his tyres which explains why Schumacher was out of contention earlier in 1998.)

The 1988 championship was a contest between the "classic" Senna and the "front-end" Prost in McLarens. Senna had 8 wins and 3 second-place finishes, Prost had 7 wins and 7 second-place finishes. Isn't this the type of competition we would all prefer to see?

Mika Hakkinen is an outstanding driver who has paid his dues and deserves to be a World Champion. He may be the best driver of 1998 but we will never know for certain because of McLaren's team orders. Ron Dennis is denying him the chance to be an all-time great driver, just as much as he is denying David Coulthard the chance to win the World Championship. What kind of World Champion does Mika Hakkinen want to be? Does he really want his legacy to be that of a champion, like Andretti, who needed team orders to win a F1 championship? The same applies to Michael Schumacher and Ferrari. I think they both deserve better than that.

All of us want to see the best driver win. But banning team orders is futile as excuses like "brake fade" or "loss of power" will always be used to justify team orders. However, rule changes can be more creative to compensate those talented drivers who are asked to give up their lead and chances of scoring more World Championship points. So how about bonus points for the fastest lap? The following is a scheme that may help to make Grand Prix racing a little more fair:

  1. Points for a fastest lap will only be awarded to a driver who completes the Grand Prix.
  2. No points for the 2nd fastest lap if the driver who set the fastest lap retires.
  3. One point for the fastest lap if the driver finishes in any place except for second or third place, when two points are awarded.
  4. One point to the Constructor's championship for the fastest lap

Under the revised scoring system, extra points will be given in the following manner:

  • Winner has fastest lap: 10,6,4,3,2,1
  • Fastest driver does not finish: 9,6,4,3,2,1
  • Second place has fastest lap: 9,8,4,3,2,1
  • Third place has fastest lap: 9,6,6,3,2,1
  • Fourth place has fastest lap: 9,6,4,4,2,1
  • Fifth place has fastest lap: 9,6,4,3,3,1
  • Sixth place has fastest lap: 9,6,4,3,2,2
  • Fastest driver outside top six: 9,6,4,4,2,1,(1)

If you check the eleven races that took place so far this year, the top of the World Championship table would not have changed that much: Hakkinen would have had 74 points, instead of the 76 he has now, Schumacher would have had the same 60 points as he has now. But Coulthard (who set the fastest lap on both of the last two races where he finished second) would have had 46 points instead of the 42 he has now - exactly those four World Championship points he waved, when he allowed his teammate to pass him for the win of the opening race of 1998.

Ewan M. Tytler 1998 Atlas Formula One Journal.
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Ewan M. Tytler is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, and drove 250cc Karts between 1973 and 1979. Later he was the Press Officer for the Banff & Moray Kart Club, and published several race reports in "Karting" and "The Scottish Clubman" magazines.