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F1 and the merits of disobedience

Sebastian Vettel's willingness to defy Red Bull commands could set up a thrilling season of Formula 1

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Team orders have long been a contentious issue within Red Bull. Image: Sum_of_Marc via flickr Creative Commons.
Team orders have long been a contentious issue within Red Bull. Image: Sum_of_Marc via flickr Creative Commons.

"If you no longer go for a gap that exists, you are no longer a racing driver."

Those are the immortal words of Ayrton Senna, the legendary F1 driver whose name is synonymous with the fearless and uncompromising driving style that made him a global icon.

I suspect those words, and countless more from the great Brazilian, have been going through the minds of F1's current crop after the events of the Malaysian Grand Prix.

The man who went for the gap this time was Sebastian Vettel, defying the much-maligned team orders to overtake his teammate Mark Webber and win the race.

One who didn't was Nico Rosberg, who obeyed his Mercedes bosses and stayed behind Lewis Hamilton as they took third and fourth.

The podium afterwards was a scene of bizarre tension and dissatisfaction. Vettel has since apologised to Webber and the Red Bull team for his actions, while Hamilton, a renowned racing purist and fan of Senna's driving philosophy, said that Rosberg deserved to finish ahead of him.

Team orders have long been a source of contention in F1, having been originally banned in 2002 after incidents involving Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello at Ferrari. They remained though, with the same team employing a system of unbelievably indiscreet messages to ensure Felipe Massa deferred to Fernando Alonso - "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understand that message?"

And this isn't the first time that Webber and Vettel have been pitted against each other, with the Australian's refusal to allow his teammate through at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix causing them both to crash. The ban on team orders was repealed in 2011, with the FIA accepting that they could not realistically prevent them.

From the point of view of the modern F1 team, these orders are logical - they ensure the best possible finish for the team as a whole, removing the risk of a crash or, as Mercedes supremo Ross Brawn cited on Sunday morning, disrupting the fuel strategy.

But this is the odd conundrum that a driver faces. One on hand, F1 is the ultimate team sport, with hoards of designers and engineers working tirelessly behind the scenes to put two cars on the grid. But then, the drivers who go down as the greatest in history are the ones who are selfish on the track, who can ruthlessly and unashamedly do everything it takes to win.

And from a spectator's point of view, I'll take the second choice every time.

Vettel is seeking a fourth consecutive Drivers' Championship. Image: iragazzidiredbull via flickr Creative Commons.
Vettel is seeking a fourth consecutive Drivers' Championship. Image: iragazzidiredbull via flickr Creative Commons.

While today's race will no doubt be thought of as an embarrassment in the Red Bull garage, the truth is that races like this are exactly what we want to see. Without the controversy and without the rivalries, F1 can very quickly become dull.

Team orders are a part of the sport, but if this win proves vital in securing Vettel a fourth consecutive world title I suspect he will feel little remorse for his indiscretion in Malaysia. And if Nico Rosberg's obedience costs him at the end of the season, he will no doubt be wishing that he had been willing to overtake Hamilton.

The race in Malaysia has brought this issue to the forefront of F1 once again, and it could stay there depending on how the title race progresses. And for the sake of those of us sitting at home, I hope Vettel has started a new trend of noncompliance, though this is hugely unlikely.

As sorry as we all felt for Mark Webber, as a fan of the sport I would much rather see the faster car win and on Sunday that car belonged to his German teammate. The brief battle they had with 13 laps to go was thrilling, a perfect example of why we watch F1, and if we get a few more of those between now and the end of the season then it will surely be an overwhelming positive for the sport.

The world of F1, like most sports, is a highly sanitised environment, with the desires and opinions of the drivers secondary to those of the team and their corporate sponsors. Seeing a moment of reckless individualism from one of the highest profile drivers is rare and refreshing, something that will be lamented by his team but that should be enjoyed by the rest of us.

And now that we have a precedent for disobeying your team, Vettel and others may be more willing to do it again, particularly when the championship is on the line.

Like them or not, team orders are here to stay. Whether the drivers follow them is another matter entirely.

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7 Comment Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

While I fully agree with you on the fact that we follow the sport hoping to watch cars battling till the very end, I must say that I always believed that vettel was a true gentleman and he would stick by an agreement he made with his team mate and his team. Not that he shouldn't have gone for the overtake, but shouldn't have agreed to do it in the first place.

They have agreed to not fight for positions after the final pit stop and he should have stuck to that. Winning after he had agreed to this plan what some fans are upset about.

I don't like team orders of the kind employed by Mercedes today, but brawn, along with todt, had made calls like these before.


Arnold Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

Thanks for story, but you forgot to include the little fact that Vettel did not exactly have the faster car while MW was driving around with his engine turned down.


Ammar Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

I've lost all respect for Vettel. If he was racing Mark genuinely and beat him that would have been OK. But there was an agreement that Sebastian broke and took the win as if he earned it 100%. Absolutely appalling. Think back to when Mark was told to hold position and he did it. He was obviously not happy but bottom line he listened to the team. Seb didn't.


Zuben Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

Yes, fans love a racing battle. No, fans don't love watching a driver put himself above the team, and figuratively stab his teammate in the back. Senna's driving ability was over the top, but his willingness to put another car into the weeds made me disrespect him. Same with Vettel, who has just lost huge respect in my eyes.


Michael Hogan Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

I was brought up in an era where your word meant everything. If you agreed to something to stick to that agreement even when it didn't suit your current situation. Vettel proved today that you can't believe His "Word". Team orders are a part of any sport and will always be there. If RBR were seriously PO'd about VETs behaviour maybe they should have fined him... Horner's excuse about not telling VET to give back the place doesn't wash either. There was a wedge between VET and WEB anyway. Now it's a chasm...


John M Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

No point reading your articles any more. You don't even have the facts right!


Konstantin Posted on Thursday 22 Oct 2020

The thing is, going for the gap when the gloves are off is one thing, but going for the gap when your teammate has turned the revs down is a different thing :-). Like all things in life, on event is heroic once and comic later :-)


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