Time for last orders?
Another F1 season, another political minefield… By Adam Cooper
Should team orders be part of Formula 1? It’s a debate that’s been going on for years and one that was brought back into sharp focus after the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Everyone wants to see drivers race, but the decisions made by Christian Homer and Ross Brawn on the pit wall at Sepang were perfectly logical. It has long been standard practice that teams allow drivers to race until the last stop, at which point they take stock of the points available and try to guarantee that they get the cars safely home.
Avoiding unnecessary incidents between team-mates is the main driving force, but in an era when preserving tyres is absolutely key there’s extra pressure to stop drivers pushing each other too hard. And in the case of Mercedes in Malaysia, the additional factor was fuel consumption.
It’s easy to forget that both teams’ drivers did race, and fiercely so, up to and immediately after the final stops. It was only when the wheel-to-wheel action became a little too fraught that Brawn and Homer made the calls.
Certainly most would agree that asking drivers to hold station in such circumstances is a lot more palatable than asking them to swap places well before a championship climax, as Ferrari did in such crass fashion in Austria in 2002 and Germany 2010 — and in the latter case when orders were still officially banned.
The unfortunate thing for Homer was that he was trying to do the right thing in ensuring a safe passage to victory for Mark Webber, and thus in effect giving a public sign that Red Bull is not all about Vettel. The German’s decision to pursue his own ends, while applauded by some as a sign of his racer’s attitude, served only to stoke the fire.
David Coulthard, who was involved in a tense relationship with Mika Flakkinen at McLaren, believes such issues are inevitable. “It’s natural for teams to want drivers who cause problems,” he told Motor Sport. “They don’t want ‘yes men’, nice guys who turn up and do a good job. People should not be at all confused. Team principals want problems, because no problem means no success. Success carries problems because there are expectations.
“What Malaysia did was get the inevitable pressure point of the season out of the way very early, and it will be even clearer now. I think it was a good thing for the team and a good thing for Mark, because he’s got a credit.”
Nevertheless, like other former drivers Coulthard thinks team instructions are sacrosanct. The key is proper communication — Nico Rosberg revealed that his obvious frustration in Malaysia stemmed from the fact that the scenario had not properly been discussed in advance. But still he held station.
“In my case I did receive team orders at times when I wasn’t expecting them or it hadn’t previously been discussed,” says Coulthard. “It took a few laps of negotiation before I responded to the team’s instruction. I didn’t ignore it, I negotiated to understand the full story. “In the case of ‘Multi 21’, when it has been discussed it’s not optional. If your buddy and you are standing above a rock pool and you say, ‘We’ll jump on three,’ but your buddy doesn’t jump, next time you don’t trust him…” See Nigel Roebuck, page 52
Dodging rubber bullets
The opening races of the season indicated that Pirelli has succeeded in its objective of spicing up the racing by modifying its tyres for 2013, but whether the Italian firm has gone too far remains a subject of debate.
Early on during its first season, 2011, Pirelli came under fire for making tyres that were too fragile, especially after a Turkish GP featuring a record number of pitstops. By late 2012, however, there were races when teams found that tyres could in effect run a full distance, and strategy options were limited. That led to calls for Pirelli to create a little more excitement for this season.
The Chinese GP certainly provided that, thanks to the soft tyre lasting for just a handful of laps and opening up the possibility of using it in the first or final stint, but the race also fired up the debate about whether the current rules encourage real motor racing. As Mark Webber noted, “It’s a little bit WWF at the moment.”
Getting a car to work with its tyres has always been a key element of the racing art, but the downside is that cars are running a long way from their full potential in 2013.
“I don’t think it’s great for the drivers to be cruising at 70 per cent for a large percentage of the race,” said Christian Horner. “They want to push, they want to drive as hard as they can and they don’t want to drive percentages.”
It remains the case that F1 rules are the same for everyone and it’s a question of drivers and engineers making the most of them. One of the most intriguing aspects of the Shanghai race was the fact that the five World Champions emerged from a chaotic afternoon at the top of the field.
The 2013 season is well underway, but there is no sign of a new Concorde Agreement — the document everyone has always been told was essential to the sport’s running.
By the end of last year all the teams — bar the curiously excluded Marussia outfit — had provisionally agreed deals with Bernie Ecclestone and CVC. While there were always going to be further details to sort out, many teams have since been frustrated by learning exactly what their rivals were offered, and that has contributed to stalemate on further progress.
Ferrari has always been a special case under its formal status as the sport’s oldest team, but rivals feel strongly that Red Bull and to a lesser extent McLaren have been unfairly rewarded by their new deals, while Williams was also able to secure favourable terms given its recent lack of winning form. The issue of governance is also key, as the power to make decisions has been focused on the leading teams.
Intriguingly, those with most to lose appear to be Ecclestone and CVC, whose plans to sell the sport are in limbo pending a new Concorde.
A glance at developments from the Formula 1 pitlane
Mercedes Splitter – As teams try to lower the front of the car and raise the rear, increasing rake for more downforce, the splitter gets in the way, risking wearing away the legality plank under the car. Some teams previously allowed the splitter to flex to let the front run lower, so the FIA now tests this. After Malaysia, Italian media suggested three teams had illegal splitters. This proved untrue, but highlighted the severity of splitter deflection tests, which apply a 200kg load vertically under the leading edge of the floor. This must not deflect more than 5mm. To meet this, teams fit a reinforcing piece (highlighted) inside the carbon-fibre floor section, typically a metal plate that acts in both torsion and cantilever to resist the test loads. This must be rigidly attached; in the early 2000s teams had a spring set-up to allow the floor to bend when the splitter hit the track, although the real reason was to ease plank wear.
Ferrari Endplates – In China Ferrari raced a new front wing endplate, unique for having slots along its bottom edge. Normally the horizontal lip running along the lower edge of the endplate (known as the footplate) is one piece. This exists partly to help seal low pressure under the wing, but also because the rules demand a specific surface area. Ferrari tried one slot during testing and a second slot appeared in the race. The slots take higher pressure above the wing and pass it underneath to help flick air around the front tyre, so are less about sealing the front wing and more to do with downstream airflow.