Fernando Alonso got a lift from team instructions – we examine whether the issue could have an impact on the title.
F1 drivers to act on order of the day, not the team
When the five red lights on the starting gantry go out tomorrow at 5pm to launch the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it will, one suspects, come as a relief to the championship protagonists. For a few moments, at least, they will escape the debate that has dominated the build-up to the final race of the season.
Much of the talk at Yas Island this week has centred on whether Sebastian Vettel, the Red Bull-Renault driver, will assist the title challenge of his teammate, Mark Webber.
In one scenario, Vettel could be leading the race, with Webber second and the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso third. If they finish in that order, Alonso would be world champion by five points over the two Red Bull drivers.
But if the Red Bulls were to trade places and Webber were first across the finish line, he would take the title by two points over Alonso.
It sounds simple. The two Red Bull drivers will be allowed to race early on and, if Alonso has problems and drops outside the top four, Webber and Vettel will race to the flag. A Vettel victory would make him champion if Alonso is fifth or lower.
But if Alonso is still in the running, and Vettel is leading Webber, under "team orders" Vettel would be expected to move aside and allow his teammate to pass.
But it is not that simple.
Team orders and the deliberate manipulation of race results have been banned in F1 since 2002. Teams face heavy fines, possible points deductions and disqualification from the race if they are judged by the FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile), the ruling body of F1, to have deliberately changed the race order.
Hence, the careful or non-committal answers this week as Vettel, Webber and Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, have been bombarded with questions over whether team orders will be made.
Horner said team orders would not be implemented this weekend and that Vettel was free to do what he wanted.
"The team won't give an instruction, so if [Vettel] does it we know that it is entirely his own choice," he said. "Ultimately, it's down to the driver to decide. It won't be something that is insisted or requested by the team. It will be down to the driver."
Horner, of course, cannot say that Red Bull are planning to implement team orders. He would be putting himself, the team and his drivers in danger of censure.
It is certain, however, that Red Bull will discuss every scenario with their drivers before the race. But it will not be in a public forum. If there is a signal to Vettel during the race that his title chances are slim and it is better for Webber to be ahead of him, it will be subtle - so if team orders happen and there is an outcry from Ferrari, who would be the wounded party, Red Bull can insist that Vettel acted of his own free will.
Jean Alesi, the former Ferrari, Benetton and Sauber driver, is convinced that Red Bull will use team orders.
"They are trapped because of the way they have discussed it," he said. "They have tried to say they are clean and they don't do it, but that is misinformation. It is not true. They will definitely use it."
Red Bull are treading carefully because they saw the anger aimed at Ferrari in July following the German Grand Prix. Felipe Massa had led at Hockenheim from the start. But Alonso, his teammate, was higher up in the championship order and was close behind him.
Massa looked comfortable though, until Rob Smedley, the Brazilian's race engineer, came on his pit radio and said: "Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understood that message?"
On lap 49 Massa visibly slowed coming out of the hairpin and allowed his teammate to blast past him. They finished the race with Alonso first and Massa second.
Subtle it was not, and the FIA did not accept Ferrari's explanation of it not being team orders, and simply Smedley passing on information to Massa. The team was fined US$100,000 (Dh367,000), but they did not receive further sanctions or punishment. Tactically, the decision has proven to be correct.
If Alonso, who consistently has been faster than Massa this season, had remained behind his teammate in Germany he would be just one point, rather than eight, ahead of Webber for tomorrow's race.
Now, Alonso only needs to finish in the top two to be assured a third championship. Had he remained second at Hockenheim, he would need to win tomorrow.
Alonso has shown no regret for what happened in Germany. When it was put to him on Thursday that Jenson Button, the 2009 world champion, had said he hoped that if Alonso wins the title, he does it by more than seven points - the difference between first and second place - so that the Germany result was not decisive, he dismissively said: "I think winning by seven, one or 25 is the least important thing in my mind now."
Team orders have been around almost since the inception of the series, in 1950. Famously, the 1956 world championship finale saw Ferrari order Luigi Musso to hand over his car during the Italian Grand Prix to Juan Manuel Fangio, after the Argentine driver's car failed.
Fangio needed to finish to be world champion, but Musso, who was not in contention, disobeyed his team and refused to give up his car, and it was Peter Collins, who had a slim chance of being champion himself, who gave up his Ferrari to allow Fangio to beat Stirling Moss to the title.
Many other examples exist of teammates moving over for each other, but the incident that led to the ban being brought in also involved Ferrari.
Rubens Barrichello slowed as he exited the final corner on the last lap of the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix, allowing teammate Michael Schumacher to take the victory.
The booing and jeering of the Austrian crowd during the podium ceremony summed up the public reaction to a blatant manipulation of the race order, which was only the sixth round of that season.
FIA investigated, and its World Motorsport Council (WMSC) announced: "The WMSC deplored the manner in which team orders were given and executed at the Austrian Grand Prix. Nevertheless the Council finds it impossible to sanction the two drivers, because they were both contractually bound to execute orders given by the team."
For the 2003 season it was announced that team orders were illegal. But the recent Germany incident and what could happen tomorrow have shown the flaw in the rule.
It might not have been sporting, but in terms of winning the championship, Alonso winning in Hockenheim was the right result for Ferrari. And tomorrow, would it be wrong for Red Bull to ask Vettel to move aside if it meant winning the drivers' title?
F1 is a big business. Both Red Bull and Ferrari must answer to sponsors in what is a results-driven industry, and a championship is the greatest result of all.
Massa winning in Germany was the deserved result, but Alonso's title hopes would not have been as strong.
Schumacher was clearly favoured over Barrichello during their period as teammates from 2000 through 2005, with the German clearly being the team No 1.
Twice the Brazilian was asked to move over for his teammate, with Ferrari's claim always being that Schumacher's championship bid came first.
It may not be the morally correct way of doing things, but ultimately all the history books will show in years to come is that Schumacher won five titles in that period and Ferrari won five constructors' championships. From the drivers' point of view, team orders are part of life, according to Alesi, who said he both benefited from and suffered from team orders during his 13-year career in the sport.
"When you drive for a team, you are not a single man, you are a team. And if one day your teammate helps you, you will help him out," he said.
"It balances out, because if you win the championship, a lot of that is down to the car."
He said that when he was racing in the German Touring Car series, after he retired from F1, "it happened to give a win to a teammate. It depends what teammate you had, because sometimes your teammate is so far away from you that you cannot help him anyway. But I was always prepared in my mind to do it. When you are a professional, it is not an issue."
Tomorrow, the racing world will be fascinated to learn, should the situation arrive, if Vettel will "be a professional" and move aside for his teammate.
INSTANCES OF TEAM ORDERS
? 1998, McLaren-Mercedes
The cars of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard led from the start in Melbourne in the opening race of the season. But Hakkinen fell behind his Scottish teammate after mistakenly coming into the pits after mishearing a call on his pit radio. Coulthard was told by his team to move aside and he did with six laps to go. Hakkinen won.
? 1998, Jordan-Peugeot
Team orders can also be used to keep people behind, not just to change the order. In Belgium, Damon Hill was leading Ralf Schumacher in a Jordan-Peugeot one-two at Spa-Francorchamps. Deciding not to risk the two drivers knocking each other out of the race, Eddie Jordan, the team principal, ordered Schumacher, who was visibly faster, to stay behind Hill.
? 1999, Ferrari
Mika Salo was standing in for the injured Michael Schumacher and he found himself leading the race in Hockenheim, Germany. But teammate Eddie Irvine was going for the championship, so Salo slowed to allow the driver from Northern Ireland to triumph.
? 2007, Ferrari
There was some stealth manoeuvring from Ferrari as Kimi Raikkonen, above, needed to win in Brazil to be world champion but had teammate Felipe Massa ahead of him. When Massa pitted for his last pit stop he then did a suspiciously slow out lap, so that when Raikkonen pitted he retained the lead and went on to take the title.