The words ‘team’ and ‘orders’ in Formula 1 – when used in conjunction that is – are considered dirty by many. To instruct one driver to assist the other is derided by many as anti-sport, unethical and plain wrong. But they are a necessary evil, one Mercedes, and Red Bull for that matter must deploy when appropriate.
After the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix controversy, when Rubens Barrichello ceded victory to team-mate Michael Schumacher after being instructed to by the Ferrari pitwall, team orders were even banned. While the public outcry there was justified given the way it was done, with Barrichello making his feelings clear by backing off out of the final corner, and the fact that Schumacher already had a mighty points lead, this was an over-reaction.
The ban was eventually overturned for 2011, which followed the previous year’s German Grand Prix when Ferrari had to pretend it wasn’t ordering Felipe Massa to hand the win to Fernando Alonso. The press conference after the race, when both drivers had to be what could most generously be described as evasive – and others used far stronger words – was painful to sit through for everyone in the room.
But despite team orders becoming legal again, teams have still been very sensitive about team orders. Often, weasel words were used to justify what were transparently obviously team orders when the teams in question had every right to deploy them. After all, F1 may have an individual element but it is also a team sport.
This brings us to Mercedes. Team principal Toto Wolff was asked by Sky Sports F1 about the possibility and didn’t dodge it.
“It’s difficult when you have to call team orders because all of us as racers don’t want to see that,” said Wolff.
“He’s here on merit, but Valtteri is going all the way to the back on Sunday. So we need to see how the start pans out, we need to be careful in the first corner, and then we’ll see where we are. “
He was then asked if, in a situation where Bottas leads Hamilton if “you’ll swap them, presumably”. Wolff’s answer was a straightforward, “presumably, yes”.
As Wolff points out, Bottas couldn’t start from pole in Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix even if he won the sprint. So it’s only logical for him to cede the advantage to Hamilton given it will give his team-mate a potentially crucial extra point while not impacting the Mercedes haul of five points from the sprint qualifying race.
Some argue that would be cruel to Bottas. But performance is everything and while Bottas has occasionally found himself on the wrong end of a team orders call, most famously at Sochi in 2018, it’s still relatively rare.
The reason for that is simply he is not as good as Hamilton. There’s no shame in that given Hamilton is an all-time great, but the cold, hard truth is that the team will back the stronger driver. Hamilton is a title threat, Bottas isn’t.
So Wolff is willing to embrace this necessary evil. That Sochi order in 2018 didn’t sit easily with him on a personal level even though he made the call, but it was absolutely the correct decision given the threat posed by Sebastian Vettel in that particular race even though you could argue they could have swapped them back round late on.
It’s the same in all team sports. In road cycling, domestiques sacrifice themselves to assist the team leaders. In football, no player should be guaranteed a starting position should it not be in the team’s best interest. And in grand prix racing, it has been there since the year dot.
Trying to pretend team orders shouldn’t happen will just lead to feeble attempts to hide it that insult the intelligence of the fans. Mercedes is in a close fight with Red Bull and the championships could be decided by a few points either way. So it must do everything possible both to maximise those points and ensure that they go onto Hamilton’s drivers’ championship tally.
As for Bottas, the loss of a sprint race victory – if, that is, he does stay ahead and then relinquishes it – won’t mean a great deal. He had his moment in qualifying when he reminded everyone of just how quick he is and it was very obvious how much that meant to him.
For Bottas, the real challenge is not personal glory but to help complete his Mercedes story with another double championship and underline his key role in the most extraordinary run of success for any team in F1 history.
And for all the talk of defiance, even his brief fastest lap at Zandvoort was only a temporary inconvenience given how much he lifted at the end of the lap.
F1 may be an individual sport in many ways, but there’s also greatness in being a team player. After all, if Bottas wanted to be the main man, then he needed to perform better than Hamilton over the past four-and-a-half years. He’s simply a very good F1 driver up against a great one.
As history shows, if one driver is better than the other, it doesn’t take long for that to be reflected in the team’s approach. Speed ultimately dictates that, not team orders, which are simply a symptom of the order established by performance.