Team orders? It was ever thus in Formula One. Juan Manuel Fangio, a name that echoes down the ages, resonating virtue, would flick a team-mate if his car conked out, slipping behind the wheel while the engine was still running, to continue the race in car No 2. No one batted an eyelid. To defer to the regal Argentine was expected.
Similarly, Fangio happily acquiesced at the behest of Mercedes to not attacking team-mate Stirling Moss at Silverstone in 1955, thus allowing the Briton to win his home race. There are countless examples down the years of similar gestures. It was not until David Coulthard controversially deferred to Mika Hakkinen in Australia in 1998 that the wheels came off the practice.
Hakkinen, then recently recovered from a near-fatal accident and much favoured by McLaren owner Ron Dennis, claimed victory after Coulthard moved over with a few laps to go. Coulthard said he was merely honouring a pre-race agreement with his team-mate. Whoever reached turn one first would take the race. It was an absurd rationale that ran counter to common sense and racing instinct. It conferred nothing but opprobrium on team and players, from which the pairing never really recovered. The sport’s governing body, the FIA, through the auspices of the World Council, debated the issue and subsequently ruled that acts prejudicial to the interests of competition would carry the risk of punishment.
Team orders ultimately acquired a toxic quality in the epoch of Michael Schumacher, when Ferrari would routinely engineer outcomes in favour of the multiple world champion at the expense of sundry team-mates. It would not be accurate to describe them as second drivers, because, on the insistence of Schumacher and Ferrari, both were notionally afforded equal status. The truth of that claim lay shredded all over Zeltweg in 2002 when Rubens Barrichello was ordered aside to allow Schumacher through for victory.
Nothing personal, Rubens, was the message delivered from on high by Ferrari general manager Jean Todt, who loved Schumacher like a son, it is for the championship. This episode was so blatant, and ran so deeply against the very essence of what competitive sport is all about, it provoked widespread outrage and eventually a ban by the FIA, which merely drove the practice underground.
The ban was subsequently made irrelevant by the advance of the digital age, a development that allows teams to control the cars remotely from electronic cells on the other side of the world. There is no longer any need to issue an instruction when you can turn down the rev counter from Woking to Milton Keynes to Maranello, and so from 2011 team orders no longer featured in the regulations.
What happened in Malaysia on Sunday was the primal eruption of avarice. Sebastian Vettel was not interested in preserving team etiquette. His eyes were bigger than his belly. He was the kid in the sweet shop who wanted the lot. You cannot argue with his claim that it made the spectacle greater. Pity that one was playing to his own rules and the other to the team’s. We have seen far too many races peter out at the front to preserve the dominant team’s position. In the era of multi-million pound sponsorship geared to TV visibility, it is too much to risk hard-won exposure on the altar of competition.
Mark Webber therefore thought he was secure in his understanding that Vettel would obey the command to hold positions. The former Formula One driver Gerhard Berger accounted for Vettel’s disregard of instruction in terms of a character flaw that comes as a given in serial winners. Like Schumacher before him, Berger argued that it is impossible for this personality type to resist when an opening is presented. There is pathology at play, he claims.
It is probably not that profound. It was more a sense of entitlement. Vettel demonstrated where the power lies at Red Bull, urging the hierarchy to order Webber aside earlier in the piece on the grounds that he was too slow. Sitting on the pit wall with head in hands, the Red Bull team principal, Christian Horner, issued impotent pleas on the team radio for Vettel not to be silly. Sorry Christian, you report to Vettel, not the reverse.
He knows he has done wrong, said Horner. The matter will be dealt with in-house and we move on. Horner was addressing the matter in the wrong tense. It was dealt with on the circuit at Sepang. By definition Vettel took the Red Bull law into his own hands because he makes it. The resigned look on Webber’s face told us that much.
If Webber and, judging by the reaction to the episode, Vettel, too, are losers in the affair, the commercial rights holder Bernie Ecclestone, always looking for ways to spice up the show, will have been rubbing his hands watching from his London home. Controversy is good for business.