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Those never popular 'team orders'

Felipe Massa refusing to obey orders last weekend has become -again- a hot topic. History knows he has not been the only one doing so.
Thursday, April 3, 2014

April 2, 2014 (F1plus/Graham Keilloh).- 'All I care about is the team, and the points we earn. I don't care who scores them - why should I? Drivers are only employees, after all.'

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Whose words are these? They belong to Frank Williams, said some years ago. Partly due to this Felipe Massa wasn't the only one surprised that he received a team order from the Williams pit wall asking him to cede position to his stable mate Valtteri Bottas during Malaysia's race last Sunday.

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Sir Frank (or Frank as he was known then) uttered this a few months after the Brazilian Grand Prix of 1981. In the Williams Grand Prix Engineering early days its driver Alan Jones was very much the man. He rose with the team, was a crucial part of it, and therefore the contracts were set very much in his favour.

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If in a race the two Williams cars were placed one and two and close enough together then Jones was to win, and positions would be swapped to achieve this end if required.

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As it was, it was hardly enforced as Jones won his and the team's first championship in 1980 as his team mate Carlos Reutemann rarely was quicker, but for 1981 the agreement remained in place.

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Come round two a freshly on-form Reutemann led from Jones in the Rio rain. Out went the pit board: 'JONES-REUT'. Reutemann disregarded it, and won.

Team orders were virtually never seen again from the Williams team (though what Riccardo Patrese was asked in the 1992 French Grand Prix came close), even to the point of losing championships and putting a few drivers' delicate noses out of joint as a direct or indirect consequence. That was until last Sunday.

The fallout was considerable, especially from the abrasive Jones, but later - and perhaps riled by Jones leaving Frank seriously in the lurch by announcing his retirement late in the 1981 season, long after most drivers to have were signed up elsewhere - Frank mollified his view somewhat and resolved that never again would he place a single driver on a pedestal. It also was around then that he said the words replicated in the opening paragraph.

Of course, figures from the Grove squad would (and have) argued that it was team strategy rather than team orders; that Bottas was on the fresher tyres and therefore may have been better equipped to pass Jenson Button ahead.

Yet still the instruction seemed not only hard to justify given everything but also astonishingly clumsy, particularly within the context of what Felipe - infamously - had to cope with at Ferrari for years.

Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas (LAT Photo)

The choice of words in issuing the instruction was probably the most ham-fisted part of all, almost lifted directly from the prose of Rob Smedley that we all recall from Hockenheim in 2010. The team almost certainly didn't mean it this way, but you'd forgive Massa for wondering if it was intended to maximise the cruelty.

And perhaps it should also have occurred to those on the Williams pit wall that, given what has gone before, Felipe may be particularly determined not to fold this time. And he didn't; doing what he didn't in Germany four years ago - and what Reutemann did at Rio - and defying the instruction.

The rights and wrongs of team orders and whether to obey them are knotted, reflecting that both doing right by the team and keeping on racing as nature intended both have their honour about them, but Massa in my view this time made the right decision.

It seems that ceding position deliberately to your team mate lays down a psychological marker, and is difficult to live down. Ask David Coulthard, Rubens Barrichello, Felipe himself... While in such situations, and as Reutemann found out, ultimately few really object to a determined racer.

In this ilk too I did encounter the odd comment after the Sepang race that cried 'hypocrisy', in that the reaction to Massa defying a team order was rather different - much more sympathetic - to that afforded to Sebastian Vettel at the same venue a year ago (what is it with Malaysia and team orders?). But as far as I am concerned the supposed parallel is bogus.

Refusing to cede a place to your team mate is one thing; Vettel's action of ambushing a trusting team mate who - everything turned down - thinks you are cruising to the flag is quite another.

Seb and his acolytes really shouldn't take it personally; it worked in the same way when Didier Pironi did similar to Vettel, this time with Gilles Villeneuve at Imola in 1982, and the chasm in sympathy between that afforded to him and that afforded to Reutemann roughly a year earlier could not have been wider.



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