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Formula One: The art of being Multi-21'd

“Mark… Mark.”

“Multi-21 Seb… Yeah, Multi-21.”

And Mark Webber slammed his water bottle on the table in a clear sign of disgust at what Sebastian Vettel had done.

As all of you probably already know, Vettel defied team orders and made a move on Webber which resulted in wheel to wheel racing between the Red Bull team mates. Before they could cancel each other out, a la Turkey 2010, Webber yielded, and gave room for Vettel to pass him. But he was clearly not impressed with the move.

If you need help recalling the Turkey incident, take a look at this:



The aftermath of the incident has become a huge storm. Not since Rubens Barrichello was asked to let Michael Schumacher pass has there been such a hue and cry. Was it wrong for Vettel to have overtaken Webber when he was told to hold stations?

Purists talk about how, in the end, it is a race and people have come to watch drivers race each other and not complete the race in formation. According to them, this is what is making F1 boring and turning viewers away. The other school of thought is that, in the end, the drivers are not there only for themselves and should race for the team too. Therefore, team orders should be an integral part of the sport.

Let’s take a step back here. It is obvious that both camps have valid points and no one point of view is the right way to look at it. What is clear, though, is that team orders always seem to come with a lot of baggage. The only thing we can do is look at it on a case by case basis.

In the 2002 Austrian GP, as Barrichello was coming into the final corner, he was forced by team principal Jean Todt to let Schumacher pass him. Recently, it has come to light that there was a shouting match for almost 8 laps between Barrichello and Ferrari and Rubens had to finally yield as he was threatened by the team. Was there a pressing need for Ferrari to issue such strict orders so that they could let Schumacher win the race? Not at all, since it was only the 6th race of the season. One could argue that since the points system back then was 10-6-4-3-2-1 instead of the present system, every point would have counted. However, Schumacher had already won 4 of the 5 previous races and was on the podium on the other one. He had a clear gap and there was no need for such drastic actions to be taken.

As a result of that incident, 2003 saw the introduction of the no team orders rule. So now, teams cannot ask drivers to back off for their team-mates over the radio. Does that mean that we could see a fair race every time? Not necessarily. Teams will always find a workaround of any rule that does not meet their interests. Case in point, the 2007 Brazilian GP. It was the last race of the season and Kimi Raikkonen had to win the race with Hamilton finishing below 6th for Kimi to win the title. By the 2nd round of pit stops, Massa was leading the race and Kimi was second. Ferrari timed their 3rd round of pit stops in such a way that Kimi would come out in front of Massa. While there were no team orders for Massa to back off, it was clear that if the Ferraris were in a one-two situation, they would ensure that Kimi would win the race. Of course, in this context it may have made sense as Raikkonen was fighting for the title whereas Massa was not, but even then, it isn’t pure racing and the team decided to take matters into their hands.

There are other ways in which team orders are passed. It was once again Ferrari that were the culprits. In the German GP of 2010, Massa was leading the race when he got this radio message from his team, “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?” on lap 49. Subsequently, Massa slowed down so that Alonso could pass him and win the race. In this case as well, Massa was nowhere in contention for the Drivers’ title whereas Alonso was having a very close battle with Vettel. But did that make it all right? Who can tell?

And we finally come to the bizarre 2013 Malaysian GP where not one, but two teams were guilty of not allowing their drivers to race each other. In 3rd and 4th place, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg of Mercedes were exchanging places until the team found that Hamilton did not have enough fuel to last the race if it continued. As a result, he was asked to slow down. Behind him, Nico begged his team to let him pass Hamilton as he was much faster than but he was clearly told that Hamilton could go fast as well but was asked to slow down. As a result, Rosberg had to let go of a podium finish. It was the same scene playing out at the Red Bull pit lane as well, albeit with different consequences. Fearing tyre degradation and possibly fuel consumption, the team asked Webber to turn down his engine and cruise to the finish line, with Vettel being given the same instructions. Webber firmly believed that the race was as good as won as far as he was concerned. However, Vettel chose to ignore the orders and made a pass on Webber that almost turned into a repeat of Turkey.

Webber leading Vettel at Malaysian GP 2013

In the past, teams were criticised for giving team orders whereas Vettel is now being criticised for ignoring instructions given by the team. Of course, the circumstances are different. Would it have been fair on Webber if the team allowed Vettel to overtake him after being told to switch off his engines? Would it have been fair on Hamilton if Rosberg was allowed to pass him after the team miscalculated the amount of fuel that he would need and as a result had to slow down?

But one thing is for sure. After Vettel’s outrageous move, there was only one thing on everybody’s mind, which Christian Horner so aptly put it,

“This is silly Seb, come on.”

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