The Russian GP would live in the hearts of many fans, not for the fact that Lewis Hamilton claimed his 8th GP win of the season and extended his lead over his closest rival Sebastian Vettel to 50 points with just five races to go. It was an incident on Lap 25 which, though has always been part of F1 for decades, is always a bad PR for F1 and nobody wants to see it play out again: a team order.
Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas took pole on Saturday after a perfect qualifying and was on course to win his first race of the season but he was ordered to let teammate Hamilton go past him on that unforgettable Lap 25 as the drivers’ championship leader began to suffer rear-tyre blistering with Ferrari’s Vettel virtually hounding the Brit. Bottas duly complied, and Hamilton coasted to another win, one he couldn’t even celebrate. The spectators in Sochi were shocked at what had happened in the race. Maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin was also shocked. It was a muted celebration from team Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport. Hamilton and boss Toto Wolff showered praises on ‘a real gentleman’ Bottas who was visibly struggling to accept second place. Toto also stoutly defended the implemented team order. Even Vettel stood with his rivals on this one. Words like baddie, wingman and a real gentleman have now become F1 vocabulary.
Team orders, the practice of teams giving instructions to drivers to drift from the normal practice of racing against each other as they would against other teams’ drivers, isn’t new to Formula 1. Once upon a time, a driver could even give up his car for a teammate in a race! Greats like Stirling Moss, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Jacques Villeneuve have been involved in this necessary evil. Michael Schumacher’s team-ordered pass on teammate Rubens Barrichello very close to the finish line in the 2002 Austrian GP was ridiculous. Mr. Wolff criticized Ferrari back then. After the 2002 season, FIA announced that “Team Orders that could influence the outcome of a race” were banned, but team bosses still found a way around the new rule with as little as 15 words on the radio (the legendary ‘Fernando is faster than you’ order comes to mind).
Sunday’s incident isn’t the first time team orders have been used this season. In the same race on Sunday, Force India driver Esteban Ocon gave teammate Sergio Perez a chance to challenge Haas’ Kevin Magnussen. Checo was unable to overtake Magnussen and gave back the position to his teammate after nine laps. This was a mirror image of Hamilton and Bottas in 2017 Hungarian GP. Orders have been issued to Kimi Räikkönen in some races this season and previous seasons to help his teammate. But the most controversial use of team orders was the 2008 Singapore GP (Crashgate).
Now if Team Orders isn’t new, why the hullabaloo?
This has happened in the era where Mercedes’ dominance is hurting the series fan-wise, with followers scared that a longer reign of the Brackley-based team will make F1 less popular, pushing motorsport followers to seek other series that can provide ‘real racing’ and not a ‘choreographed’ procession. The team-ordered overtake looked lame. Also, some section of fans feel that a 43-point gap was enough for Lewis to win the driver’s championship based on the present state of the WO9 EQ Power + and the SF71H. But Toto feared that a DNF for Hamilton in one of the remaining five races can undo all their hard work. Impossible is nothing 50 is greater than 43. Toto needed insurance, he ordered for it, and he got it.
This won’t be the last time we will see team orders, except the FIA comes up with something foolproof. Team Orders put F1 on the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. The question on the lips of every concerned fan is: what is the FIA going to do about Team Orders?
By Ekwonye Osy Ernesto