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Monday, March 31, 2014

Let Them Race: Malaysia, Williams & Team Orders

I have to preface this post by saying that I'm a huge Williams fan. Ever since I first started watching F1 the racing heritage, the competitive spirit, the all-consuming love of the sport and the hard but fair attitude of Frank and the Williams Team has attracted my attention and support & whilst for a few years, being Irish, my allegiance shifted wholly to the Jordan Team, my affection for the team was always such that I rejoiced in watching Mansell, Prost, Hill, Button, et al driving the Williams cars and always appreciated the engineering talent of the team.

I was devastated both for myself and for the team on that fateful day at Imola in 1994 and was angered over the Italian persistence in seeking to apportion blame to the team for what was an horrific and massively upsetting racing accident.

Over the last few years I would think that my desire to see the Williams Team back at the front where they truly belong matches that of the team itself and the frustrations of the last two years where the performances have failed to match up to the team's potential have, this season, vanished in the renewed optimism derived from the signing of Felipe Massa, the retention of Valtteri Bottas, the magnificent boost of pre-season testing and the storming drive of Bottas at Melbourne after his puncture.

Massa leads Bottas in the closing stages of the Malaysian GP in contravention of Team Orders
Photo Copyright: Glenn Dunbar/Williams F1
And so to Malaysia where, in the terrible and equalising conditions presented during qualifying, the driver's couldn't get themselves out of Q2 and ended up 13th and 15th on the grid, with Bottas losing a further 3 places for, what appeared to be a relatively innocuous level of impeding Daniel Ricciardo through Turns 14 & 15.

Nonetheless, come the start of the race the two drivers stormed up the field with Massa up to 8th by lap 4 and Bottas two places behind in 10th.

And the cars in front of them throughout the race? Two Mercedes, two Red Bulls, one Ferrari, one Force India and one McLaren.  Hulkenburg in the Force India qualified in 7th and simply held position, with a two pitstop strategy in order to gain 5th at the end, both Magnusson and Ricciardo having troubles which promoted Nico up to fifth.

I'm not detracting from the hard work Hulkenburg had to undertake to keep everyone behind him, or from the pace of the car which allowed him build a considerable lead over Button behind. I'm simply positing the fact that, should the Williams have qualified in a similar position they too would have been able to race for the top 5 points scoring places.

Then in the closing stages of the race, with Massa holding 7th and Bottas behind in 8th, the call came repeatedly from the pitlane to Massa that Bottas was "faster" and to allow him overtake in order to chase down Button (around 1 second up the road).

This was a devastating imposition of team orders that, in my opinion (humble or otherwise), Felipe was completely right to ignore. He had been chasing Jenson most of the race and, after the final set of pitstops, had caught right up to the McLaren but was unable to pass.

Both cars carry Mercedes engines, both cars are being driven by massively experienced veteran drivers and it seemed that the Williams simply could not carry enough speed into and through the DRS zones to enable Massa to carry out an overtaking opportunity that would stick.

What, with 6 laps to go, made the pitlane think that Bottas could do better? First he would have to overtake Massa safely, then close the 1.5 second gap that had grown up between 6th and 7th place, and only then, if Jenson Button had not taken advantage of the orchestration going on behind him, would he have an opportunity to consider overtaking the McLaren.

All-in-all it was a highly unlikely scenario and one which I do not believe Frank would have approved of at such an early stage of the season.

The post-race defence, that Bottas would have given the place back if he was not successful, was not clarified in the pit-to-car communication and would be very hard to control assuming that Bottas might have a chance to overtake all the way around the final lap.

A pecking order within a team cannot be considered at such an early stage of the season. Last year at this very race, should we forget, was the "multi 21" saga which cast such a shadow over Sebastian Vettel's season that he had to contend with booing at a number of races, up to and including Australia two weeks ago. On the other side, Nico Rosberg, at the same race, was told to hold station behind Hamilton even though he was much faster. Nico made it clear that he would expect the favour to be returned.

I accept that Williams are in a difficult position at the moment, seeking to maximise points in the early stages of the season where their car is likely better than the cars carrying Renault & Ferrari engines.

The urge to control races and their driver's racing is therefore very strong, but they must desist from micro-managing the point's haul.

Let the driver's race and trust them to show good and proper sense when it comes to overtaking each other.

Insist they hold station in the final 8 laps simply to ensure a points haul, and

Do not instill a pecking order until such time as one driver has a clear advantage over his team-mate.

Simple rules that every driver will understand and appreciate.

Felipe Massa has been given enough team orders in his lifetime.  He is definitely a top class driver and I've been arguing since March 2011 that he needed to get out of Ferrari in order to rediscover the scintillating form he showed in 2008 when he was robbed of the Driver's Championship by a combination of Crashgate and Timo Glock.

He is now in a team that needs him to extract the best from himself and one which at the moment seems to be in a strong position to have a good season. The last thing either he or the team needs is to feel that they do not have each other's full support.

I don't know who made the decision to call Felipe but I do not see how that call was in the best interests of the team: it certainly wasn't in the best interests of Felipe Massa.