Fernando Alonso has said he would be prepared to help Felipe Massa to win the Drivers’ Championship if necessary. For the past three seasons, Alonso has been very much the dominant Ferrari driver, but Massa had a dramatic resurgence in form towards the end of 2012 in which he outpaced Alonso on several occasions but always allowed his team leader to take as many points as possible in order to challenge for the championship.
Autosport has quoted Alonso as saying, “Felipe is one of the best drivers in the world. I have been repeating this for three years, and at times people look surprised when I say this during press conferences.”
While there is no doubt that Massa has the speed to win the championship – he very nearly did so in 2008 – he will have his work cut out to beat Alonso, who is certainly one of the top drivers in Formula One at the moment. But knowing that he will have Alonso’s support if the circumstances demand it will be reassuring, particularly considering that the Ferrari drivers have arguably the best working relationship of all the drivers in top teams.
It’s no secret that Mark Webber resents being required to help his super-successful team-mate Sebastian Vettel. The internal politics at Red Bull have flared up a few times, most notably at Silverstone in 2010, when Webber was forced to race an old-spec front wing so that Vettel could use the only available new part, even though each driver had been assigned a new wing and Vettel’s had been damaged earlier in the weekend.
The other teams likely to contest the title – McLaren, Lotus and Mercedes – have never tested their driver pairings in situations that necessitate team orders. At McLaren and Mercedes, that is simply because their driver pairings are new for 2013 and their drivers have therefore not yet worked together. At Lotus, neither Raikkonen nor Grosjean was in with a realistic shot at the title towards the end of the season, and consequently team orders were unnecessary.
Ferrari seem to be keen to emphasise the family atmosphere that is part of working at Maranello. The messages that are coming out of Ferrari’s Wroom International Ski Meeting are all about co-operation between the drivers and the unity of the Ferrari family. They no doubt realise that a united team will be strong under pressure, and want to gain a psychological advantage over their competitors even before the season begins. Considering that stable technical regulations are likely to make the grid even more competitive than it was in 2012, such internal strength could be significant in maximising results through the season.
There are seven races left in the season which means that, with 25 points for a win, any driver within 175 points of Fernando Alonso is mathematically still in with a chance. Realistically, though, there are only five drivers in contention for this year’s World Championship. They are Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Lewis Hamilton (McLaren), Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) and Mark Webber (Red Bull).
Only Red Bull has both drivers in that list, which could put the team at a disadvantage as it is not yet appropriate to ask one of its drivers to support the other. But for the other three teams, that is fast becoming a necessity.
At Ferrari, Fernando Alonso is leading the championship, while Felipe Massa is 132 points behind and therefore well out of the running. Ferrari have a long history of using team orders to win championships, and this season appears no different. At the last race in Italy, Massa yielded to his team-mate, ensuring that Alonso’s championship lead stayed as large as possible. It is clear that Massa is Alonso’s ally in the title fight.
Lotus’ Kimi Raikkonen is third in the championship, 38 points behind Alonso and 65 points ahead of team-mate Romain Grosjean. While Grosjean looked early in the season like he might end up close to the championship fight, crashing out in Spa and serving a one-race ban as a result at Monza meant that he was unable to score some crucial points. He is therefore no longer a contender for the title. In recent days, Grosjean has stated that he is aiming to maximise his own results for the rest of the season but he will not be selfishly ignoring the needs of the team, which indicates his willingness to assist Raikkonen where necessary.
While Ferrari and Lotus clearly understand the need for team-work to win the championship, McLaren have a more complicated situation. Lewis Hamilton is second in the standings, 37 points behind Alonso, and Button is a further 41 points back. While that means Button is realistically unlikely to be in the title race, he is also close enough to Hamilton to think that he could perhaps finish the season as the leading McLaren driver. In the wake of the Italian Grand Prix, Button has made his intentions clear – he wants to win all of the remaining races and take the title. Hamilton has also hinted that he still sees Button as a title contender, which confirms that team orders at McLaren are not likely to appear for a while yet.
At this point, the title is still open enough that team orders at McLaren may not be necessary, although if Alonso manages to increase his championship lead any further, some difficult decisions may have to be made at Woking. With Hamilton looking increasingly likely to leave the team, however, there may be some hesitation from management to ask Button to sacrifice his own performance. Nonetheless, Ferrari have already shown the benefits of team orders this season, and the rest of the teams may soon have to follow suit or risk being left behind.
At Monaco on Sunday, Sebastian Vettel started the race on the prime tyres, when the rest of the top 10 were on the option tyres. The prime tyre is more durable, which meant that Vettel could pit quite a bit later than those who started ahead of him.
When the front-runners pitted, Vettel found himself inheriting the lead, and he duly extended it, pulling away from fellow Red Bull driver Mark Webber with ease. It was at that point that the speculation started: was Webber backing the pack up to help Vettel?
Webber himself has dismissed claims that he was assisting Vettel, but the denial is not really necessary. If Red Bull were trying to push Vettel forward, they could have gone for a one-two, rather than fourth place.
The likely implementation of team orders would have been to have Webber hold the field up enough to get Vettel out in the lead after his pitstop, and then have the Red Bull drivers switch places on the track, creating a one-two and giving the win to the more dominant driver on the weekend. Team orders are legal, so the strategy would have been allowed. It would also have been a public declaration of dominance by the World Champions.
Red Bull didn’t do it like that, and the reason is simple: They know, as everyone else in racing knows, that wins are precious. You don’t mess around with the race lead, unless your drivers are already running in genuine, dominant, first and second places. Vettel was out of position, having not pitted, and Webber was already under pressure from those behind him. Any attempt to over-manipulate the race would likely have ended badly.
Webber himself said of the rumours of assistance: “The problem with trying to do that would be that you’re exposing yourself to even more pressure from the guys behind – Nico and Fernando in this case. And then the boys in the pits might mess up Seb’s stop and it would all be for nothing. You always get bitten on the bum when you get fancy. So you just don’t try.”
The rumours have distracted attention from what was, in the end, a very clever strategy by Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull. Vettel started ninth and finished fourth, all because he didn’t run in Q3 and could therefore start on the prime tyres. Red Bull should be applauded for putting together a very successful race weekend.