The spectre of team orders has again engulfed Formula One following Sunday night’s Monaco Grand Prix, in which rookie Lewis Hamilton followed reigning world champion Fernando Alonso across the line into second place, allegedly on instruction from his boss.
Staff at the McLaren press office responded on Monday to press enquiries about what happened behind the scenes in Monaco with a nonchalant wave of the hand.
We are completely comfortable with the FIA’s investigation into our race strategy and that all decisions taken both before and during the race were completely in compliance with the International Sporting Code.
Fans and the media have reacted more strongly. “The 22-year-old’s Monte Carlo dream was sabotaged,” the Daily Mirror‘s sensationalist Byron Young roared from the Monaco media centre. The more moderate Daily Telegraph‘s Kevin Garside agreed: “Hamilton was the victim, his push for glory and the racing instincts that fuelled it badly neutered by instructions from above.” Today’s Age runs another Garside piece: “If found guilty, McLaren could face expulsion, points deductions or fines.”
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But are we getting all het up about nothing? This is Formula One, after all. The argument that team orders go against notions of honest competition is a reasonable one, but I’m not so sure it’s right, at least not if you put Sunday’s race result into the context of Formula One history.
Over the next days, FIA officials will consider whether a knee-jerk rule, designed after a black day in 2002, applies to Dennis’s personal radio instruction that Hamilton and race victor Fernando Alonso “take it easy” so that DaimlerChrysler big-cheese Dieter Zetsche can watch a resounding McLaren-Mercedes one-two rather than a heap of silver debris.
The FIA banned “team orders” five years ago after thousands of Austrians booed, whistled and walked out because Rubens Barrichello was required by his Ferrari paymasters to pull over literally within sight of his second career win to let Michael Schumacher past and across the finish line first.
Preceding that, the closest thing to a comparable hullabaloo occurred early in 1998, when at Ron Dennis’s radio behest, Mika Hakkinen was waved through on the Melbourne straight by his teammate David Coulthard after the Finn made a misguided trip to the pits.
Neither incident, however, compares to the Formula One culture of the 1950s, when “number one” drivers including Sir Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio regularly took over the seats of their subordinate teammates if their own cars broke down.
“I’d go into the pits and I’d say to the team manager ‘I’d like to take over the other car,’ and he’d bring the car in,” Moss, now 77, recalls. “The same when I was with Fangio, and he was number one, if it was worked out that he should win, then he would win.”
Five decades later, although none of the aforementioned acts were punished, Dennis could this week be found to have damaged Formula One in Monaco by “fraudulent conduct or (an) act prejudicial to the interests of motor sport”. Yet it is undeniably the case that illegal and trivial team orders exist, albeit discreetly, probably in every race.
Dennis’s only crime, then, is honesty, by giving in to a media scrum eager to explain to their readers why Lew Hamilton, the golden boy they’ve been building up, is still the only McLaren or Ferrari driver in 2007 yet to win a single Grand Prix.