Drivers, teams and team orders

Nico Rosberg is the 2016 world driver’s champion. I say this as you may not have picked up this important fact due to the furore that surrounded the final Grand Prix of 2016 at Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi.

As usual it appears everyone has got themselves in knots over the question as to whether drivers are there to race (or slow down) for themselves or whether they are part of a team. F1 is rather conflicted on this subject, as indeed are its millions of fans. At one level it is simple, there are two championships: A Constructors’ Championship which is awarded to the team who achieved the greatest number of total points with their two car entry. Mercedes AMG F1 won the 2016 constructors’ title after the Japanese Grand Prix which was round 17 out of 21 grand prix. This is a critical metric for the teams in that the revenues they receive for the following year from Formula One Management are based on their performance in the Constructors’ Championship, so here we have a team focus which brings direct financial rewards to the team.

The other championship is the Drivers’ World Championship. This is awarded to the driver who accumulates the most points during the season. After his second place at Abu Dhabi, Nico Rosberg has become the the 2016 World Drivers’ Champion. The controversy centres around his team mate Lewis Hamilton whose only chance of becoming the 2016 World Champion required him not only to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, but for Nico to finish fourth or lower in the race. With Nico sitting behind him in second place, Hamilton proceeded at a pace that was slow enough for other cars to catch up with Nico, but fast enough so that Nico could not pass. Dirty tricks? Bad Sportsmanship? Or was it a racing driver doing whatever he could to win the race and also the world championship? A further complication was that the Mercedes team intervened on the radio, they were concerned that Lewis’s pace may mean that the team could lose the race (although they had already secured the constructors’ championship), Lewis chose to ignore their requests to speed up, he won the race and he won it within the regulations.

Part of the challenge that Mercedes have faced is that they have had the dominant car in the last few years. They could have managed their drivers in the manner in which Ferrari dominated with Michael Schumacher in the period 1999-2004. Here there was a very clear number one driver who the team supported to win, at the expense of the other driver. Fortunately for us and for F1 Mercedes did not go down this path, they allowed their drivers to race, for all the risks and challenges that this would present. As a result the focus has been on the competition and tensions between the two drivers, this has made 2016 a classic F1 season, the diligent and resolute Rosberg combating the talented and mercurial Hamilton.

So F1 is conflicted. It is a team sport and success is achieved by the team working together to perform at the highest possible levels, but it is also an individual sport where individual talent and its application can be seen and appreciated, long may it continue to be so.

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