For Formula 1 fans with long memories, Sepang 2013 was a chilling throwback to events in 1982 when the controversial subject of ‘team orders’ was at the heart of one of the sport’s most deeply-felt tragedies.
We’ll get to that shortly, but in case you’re wondering, ‘team orders’ are not new: they’ve been around ever since the World Championship began back in the Fifties, and at first they were a pretty straightforward element of the racing scene.
Take France in 1951, for example. Ferrari had Alberto Ascari on pole position, with Alfa Romeo pair Giuseppe Farina and Juan Manuel Fangio alongside. Ascari led but retired; Fangio had a misfire, pitted for 12 long minutes, rejoined but had to retire.
No problem: on lap 20 teammate Luigi Fagioli brought the sister Alfa Romeo in from third position and handed it over to the Argentine maestro without demur. Fangio went on to win the race.
Or Argentina in 1956: Fangio’s Ferrari expired with fuel pump problems; he simply commandeered Luigi Musso’s scarlet car and again went on to win the race.
Or Aintree 1957: Stirling Moss led in his Vanwall, which gave up the ghost… Moss took over from teammate Tony Brooks on lap 26 and made that Vanwall the first British car to win a World Championship event.
Back then there were recognised team leaders to whom the rest showed not only deference but respect, a commodity in short supply these days. Mark Webber claimed last Sunday that he respected Sebastian Vettel and vice versa, but where was the evidence of that?
In the early 1980’s the sport was riven by political in-fighting, with bitterness and conflict all around. It spilled over into the cockpit too – just ask Alan Jones.
Australia’s 1980 World Champion was defending his title with Williams. A contract clause stipulated that if his teammate Carlos Reutemann found himself in the lead but less than seven seconds ahead of Jones, he would move over.
Not in Brazil in the second round of the 1981 season: Carlos led, but not by the required margin… out went the signal ‘JONES-REUT’ on the Williams pit board… but Reutemann paid no heed and went on to take the race win.
Jones was incensed but took sweet revenge in the season-closing race at Las Vegas, lapping Reutemann when the Argentine needed to win to take the title.
Fast-forward eight years and we come to the unhappy episode when two of the sport’s giants, McLaren’s Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna, were at daggers drawn. At the 1989 San Marino Grand Prix the two star drivers made an arrangement which was, effectively, to be the last time they agreed on anything. It was similar to the Coulthard-Hakkinen ‘gentleman’s agreement’ at Albert Park in 1998 – also with McLaren.
Senna and Prost were so dominant in Imola qualifying that whoever got the better start from the front row would be left in peace to get on with his race. Senna duly got away better – but then there was a restart following Gerhard Berger’s fiery accident in the Ferrari.
This time Prost got the flying start. But as the Frenchman approached the tight left-hander at Tosa, confidently expecting Senna to respect their agreement, he was stunned to see the Brazilian nip down the inside and steal the race lead.
Prost fulminated in the French press, Senna’s steely resolve became harder than ever – and the season ended in near-farce with their clash in the Japanese Grand Prix.
What about the Schumacher-Barrichello shenanigans at Ferrari in recent times? Let’s just take the most outrageous case of team orders at work. Remember Austria 2002? Rubens Barrichello could be brilliant if the mood came upon him – and at Imola it did.
The Brazilian qualified on pole and led from the start of the 71-lap race. But on the sprint to the line he slowed to let Schumacher nose ahead. Team orders had thwarted the Brazilian’s hopes of a second Ferrari victory. F1 was revealed as a stage-managed sham that day and Ferrari paid dearly in terms of their public image.
It didn’t seem to have a lasting effect. Within eight years Ferrari found themselves at the centre of controversy again when they paid a $100,000 fine for contravening Article 39.1 of the Sporting Regulation, prohibiting team orders, after telling Felipe Massa to let Fernando Alonso through to win the German Grand Prix.
But we have saved the worst case for last because it is unsettlingly close to what has just happened. Again, it came at Imola, this time on April 25, 1982.
The Ferrari teammates that spring day were Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi. Imola produced a great race between the two scarlet cars and René Arnoux’s Renault RE30. When the French car retired after 44 laps, Villeneuve and Pironi ran 1-2. Ferrari practice in such circumstances was that the drivers held station, for which the code was ‘Slow’ on the pit board. Out it went.
Gilles thought Pironi was putting on a spectacle for the tifosi as the two cars swapped places. But when, on the final lap, Pironi took a tow and swept past for the last time, the French-Canadian was livid. He declared, uncharacteristically, ‘It’s war, absolutely,” and vowed never to speak to his teammate again.
He didn’t. Less than two weeks later Villeneuve, one of the best-loved figures in F1 history, was dead. At Zolder next time out, incensed to see Pironi a tenth quicker in qualifying, Gilles went out for a final crack at pole. Coming across Jochen Mass’s March 821, he made a fateful decision, jinked the wrong way and was catapulted over the German’s rear wheel into the fencing. He died instantly.
‘Multi 21’ was the coded signal for the Red Bull Renault drivers to hold station at Sepang, a message Sebastian Vettel chose to ignore as he forced his way past Mark Webber for victory. As a result, the media this week have been full of what they call ‘War between Webber and Vettel’.
We would do well to remember that in war there are only losers.