Hungarian GP: When team orders became noble, ‘sportsmanlike’

As I wrote the Race Report, I couldn’t help but consider the interesting change of heart from some F1 fans on social media and the broadcast teams when they, in effect, were upset that Ferrari didn’t issue team orders and yet very happy that Mercedes did and nearly injured themselves is praising Lewis Hamilton for his honorable move of giving third place back to teammate Valtteri Bottas on the last lap, last corner—which reminded me of the Austrian Grand Prix of 2002 in which Ferrari were fined $1M and team orders were banned.

It’s an interesting reversal is some ways as Mercedes are normally a team that has castigated Ferrari in the past for team orders and crowed about their penchant for letting their drivers race unlike the manipulative Italian team. To be fair to Mercedes, they have let their drivers race in the past so while they may come across as sounding smug or overly virtuous, they do come by it naturally given their history.

It’s that very position that was challenged on Sunday when the team made the decision to orchestrate the possible result of the race and issue team orders allowing Lewis Hamilton past Bottas who had out-qualified Hamilton and clearly earned his current third-place position during the race.

It’s not unprecedented at Mercedes, however, if you recall Monaco last year when Nico Rosberg was slower than Lewis Hamilton and the teamed ordered him to let Lewis past which he did. The team also asked Bottas to move over for Lewis in Bahrain this year even though the Finn out-qualified the British champion and was running ahead of him. The reason was clear that Lewis was faster than Bottas and locked in a battle with Sebastian Vettel. Bottas said the team were right in making the team order back then.

“As a racing driver it’s the worst thing you want to hear, but that’s life,” Bottas said. “I understand the team completely on that. They had the opportunity at the end of the day to get some extra points for the team and fight for the victory.

“So yes I see the point, but still it’s tough when you’re on pole and trying to win a race. But I’m definitely a team player so I wouldn’t say no to that [team order].”

Lewis didn’t give the position back in Bahrain like he did in Hungary and that’s the issue I find most interesting as the three points Lewis ceded could cost a title…could. Lewis wasn’t asked to give the position back in Moncao in 2016 either so what makes Hungary different? Lewis was clearly the faster driver in all three races I’ve cited and only one of the three races was Lewis told to give the place back.

Perhaps it’s because I am a Ferrari fan so this kind of team order doesn’t bother me as the team are in the series for one thing…the team. I appreciate Mercedes in their efforts to let their drivers race and fairness amongst their drivers but Lewis was quicker and once he got around Bottas, he put a 7s gap between them.

The Track

As I watched the race, it was clear that the track is not easy to pass on, it never has been, and from lap one, the teams were engaged in tire preservation mode trundling around trying not to chew their tires up while avoiding the disrupted air of the cars ahead of them. It’s a unique feature of this circuit combined with the frustrating nature of HD tires.

It also occurred to me that Vettel’s steering issue had effectively backed the field up as he set the pace of the race and this allowed the top runners to remain close to each other but with little hope of passing one another as was evidenced in the case of Kimi Raikkonen who was losing his tire grip and aero whenever he got close to his teammate making passing very difficult and most likely a dive-bombing event that could end both drivers’ race. This is why you would issue a team order to let the faster driver through due to the nature of the track…just like Monaco.

What I found very interesting was the immediate calls from broadcast teams and fans for Ferrari to issue team orders and let Kimi Raikkonen past Vettel. This is the same group of folks who normally berate Ferrari for team orders. There’s little doubt in my mind that if Kimi were leading the race, Ferrari would have made the call to get Vettel ahead as he leads the championship but as it was, the cars were aligned exactly the way Ferrari wanted them and they held to their strategy instead of letting a quicker Raikkonen through for the win because they knew the nature of the track wouldn’t make it easy to pass. 

Equally interesting was the same broadcast crews and fans praising Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton as gentlemanly, honorable, sportsmanlike for issuing team orders and then reversing the running order through further team orders. Unlike Bahrain earlier this season, Mercedes reversed the order to let the faster driver through. Unlike Bahrain, I found that quite interesting and if I were on the board of Mercedes, I would be concerned about the three points that were given to Vettel in exchange for an opportunity to look virtuous and bruise each other’s back in a self-praising back-slapping session.

In a complete reversal, the very same folks who would normally eviscerate Ferrari for team orders were now eviscerating them for not calling team orders while cheering and praising Mercedes for team orders and hailing them as a shining example of sportsmanship. Strange that. Last I checked, Lewis went in to this weekend with only one point between he and Vettel and one would have thought that the team would want to minimize that by letting their faster driver through to chase down Vettel given the nature of the track. Because they chose not to do that with any lasting result doesn’t make them champions of virtue in my mind, it makes them risky and should the title be lost by three points, possibly silly.