Alpine instructed Fernando Alonso to cede position to Esteban Ocon during the first stint of the French Grand Prix, only to reverse the order after the Spaniard suggested it was a more logical strategy to make a pitstop to give his team-mate clear air.
This followed a discussion between Alonso and the team in which he indicated his willingness to cede, but that his preference was to come into the pits given the time that would have been lost – a reasonable argument given the race situation.
Alonso ran eighth early on but struggled with what he described over the radio as “very bad” graining as his stint on medium tyres progressed.
He was shuffled back to 10th after being passed by both McLaren drivers on lap 11 and then dropped to 11th when Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel overtook him a lap later.
Ocon, who started on hards, was running 12th with Lance Stroll chasing him when he was told by race engineer Josh Peckett at the end of lap 16 that “we will be swapping cars”.
That messaged was re-iterated on the main straight at the start of lap 17 as he was told “we will be swapping cars, Fernando has received the instruction, just keep Stroll behind us”
Alonso was given the instruction a little later. Race engineer Karel Loos informed him in Turn 5 on lap 17 that “we would like to swap the cars round please, we would like to swap the cars around this lap – careful with Stroll just behind Esteban”.
Although Ocon had the use of the DRS, he was still a fraction over half-a-second behind at his closest on the run to the chicane on that lap and was not let past.
“Basically, I would prefer to stop,” said Alonso after this. “If you want, I do it in Turn 1, but I will lose two or three seconds. Maybe it’s better to stop”.
Alonso was then told “OK, we’re staying out and not swapping at the moment”, with Ocon told at the start of lap 18 “let’s get closer to Fernando and we can get past him”.
This didn’t happen on that lap, with Alonso called into the pits to change to hard tyres in order to give Ocon clear air without the time loss that would have been sustained had they swapped positions.
“We talked about this, because we started with different tyres that in a moment of the race we can meet,” said Alonso when asked by The Race about the team orders discussion.
“But we were stopping either on that lap or the next lap. So while Esteban was fighting with the Aston Martin, maybe it was not the best moment.
“We stopped on the following lap and I think it was the best decision to give him free air. Ideally, without Esteban behind I could have stopped a few laps later, but obviously, we didn’t want to hold him up.”
Alonso’s argument makes sense given the proximity of Stroll and the fact he would have needed to lift to let his team-mate pass. Given he had indicated his willingness to let Ocon go at Turn 1, it would be wrong to interpret what happened as particularly controversial.
Ocon said that the team needed to review what happened, but didn’t believe it had a significant impact on how his race played out. He also raised no objection to what happened over the radio.
“At the time we were on a different strategy,” said Ocon when asked by The Race about this phase of his first stint.
“I was slightly faster than Fernando because I was on the harder compound and had a bit less degradation than him.
“We need to review what we could have done better overall in that situation, but I don’t think it would have changed much in both of our races to be fair.”
Alonso went on to finish eighth after overtaking Kimi Raikkonen and later Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz in his second stint.
Ocon ran 10 laps longer before stopping, but after overtaking the Williams of Nicholas Latifi was unable to get ahead of George Russell and finished 14th after he was overtaken by Yuki Tsunoda.