Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton collided on the final lap of Sunday’s Austrian Grand Prix, the third incident between the Mercedes team-mates in the last five Formula One races.
Immediately following the race, Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff said it might be time to consider implementing team orders to control his drivers. Such a decision, though, would be bad for the sport, bad for F1 fans and bad for the Mercedes team and its reputation.
Hamilton and Rosberg have been each others’ only real rivals for the drivers’ championship since 2014, and Hamilton has won the last two titles. Coming into the Austrian race, though, Rosberg was leading Hamilton by 24 points, thanks to his five victories against his team-mate’s two.
Back in 2014, when Rosberg clipped Hamilton in Belgium, ultimately ending the Brit’s race, Mercedes committed to allowing their drivers to race for the championship and not issue team orders. That attitude continued through 2015, when, for instance, Rosberg was upset with Hamilton for pushing him wide at start of the U.S. Grand Prix.
Clive Mason/Getty Images
Nico Rosberg clips the rear of Lewis Hamilton’s car at the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.
At various times, though, Wolff has hinted that the team would do whatever was needed to ensure they continue scoring the best possible results.
For example, after last year’s Chinese Grand Prix, he said, “We wouldn’t freeze [the race] or anything like this, but it could be a situation when we need to manage them more,” per ESPN F1’s Laurence Edmondson.
Despite Mercedes’ dominance over the past three years, which has negatively affected the level of competition in the sport, they have bought themselves respect by allowing their drivers to race.
Following the crash in Austria, if they do apply team orders, they risk losing that respect and taking the heel turn that Ferrari and Red Bull did their reigns atop the sport in the early 2000s and early 2010s, respectively.
“It seems that talking doesn’t bring us any further, so we need to think about all possible solutions and this can go as far as implementing the not-very-popular team orders,” Wolff told Sky Sports’ Simon Lazenby and Johnny Herbert in the Red Bull Ring pit lane after the race.
Pushed on whether Mercedes would actually implement team orders, he said, “This is on the table now. This is what we are going to discuss, because maybe that’s the only way we can manage the situation.”
Mark Thompson/Getty Images
Mercedes executive director Toto Wolff.
Still, Wolff acknowledged that exercising that level of control over his drivers is something of a last resort.
“I hate team orders,” he said. “I think we owe it to the fans to let them race and we like it. It’s why we are here. But if every race ends up in a collision between team-mates, it’s not what we want, and this is why we have to stop it.”
Any mention of team orders usually draws intense backlash, but there is nothing inherently wrong with them. F1 is a team sport and, as in all team sports, sometimes one player (or driver) must sacrifice their own personal glory for the good of the team.
Of course, F1 is slightly different, because team-mates are also racing against each other. That is why Mercedes have been praised for not squashing that intra-team competition by stage-managing the races.
If the latest incident causes a change in that policy, though, Mercedes will face negative publicity and significant resentment from the fans.
And it is for exactly that reason that the team should ultimately decide against such a change. Why would a company using its F1 team as an advertisement to sell road cars intentionally alienate fans of the sport?
HAM: “I was on the outside. It wasn’t me that crashed” ?#AustrianGP #F1 pic.twitter.com/xB6qI3YlAX
— Formula 1 (@F1) July 3, 2016
Or, to look at it another way, how would the Silver Arrows benefit from implementing team orders?
Mercedes are virtual locks to take both the drivers’ and constructors’ titles again this year (no matter what Sebastian Vettel thinks).
Vettel and his Ferrari team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, are Rosberg‘s closest non-Merc pursuers, 57 points adrift in the drivers’ table. And Mercedes lead Ferrari by 103 points in the constructors’ championship. Meanwhile, Hamilton trails Rosberg by just 11 points.
Favouring one driver over the other does not make sense while they are so close to each other and so far ahead of the competition. No one wants another flare-up of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from earlier this season.
But, as usual, there are many nuances to the situation that a blanket statement against team orders does not take into account.
How should Mercedes deal with Hamilton and Rosberg’s Austrian Grand Prix crash?
If it comes down to the last couple races and one driver is clearly ahead, but is facing a challenge from, say, Vettel, then team orders could be justified.
Team orders, used judiciously, do have a legitimate place in the sport.
In fact, Mercedes have already applied team orders in specific situations where they do make sense. In Monaco, earlier this year, Rosberg was struggling for pace and the team asked him to let Hamilton pass. He did and Hamilton went on to win the race.
Wolff was understandably angry in the immediate aftermath of the Austrian Grand Prix, but once he has time to speak with the drivers and the rest of the Mercedes management team, he will likely realise that the team has more to lose than to gain by implementing team orders on a regular basis.
Just as long as Hamilton and Rosberg don’t take each other out again next weekend at Silverstone.
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