There’s no Vettel in team: sporting match-fixing in F1?

Published 31 March 2013 | Authored by: Kevin Carpenter

After the Red Bull debacle at the Malaysian Grand Prix Formula 1 fans have again started to question the use of team orders. Kevin Carpenter shares his views on what this means for the integrity of the sport. 

Being a truly global sport the outright disobedience of three-time world champion Sebastian Vettel in last weekend’s Formula 1 Malaysian Grand Prix made headline news across the world. Vettel, part of the Red Bull Racing team, was running second behind his teammate Mark Webber when he engaged in an intense battle whereby he eventually overtook Webber to take the chequered flag. 

It became apparent during this battle, from the team radio communications broadcast on the television coverage, that Vettel had been told to hold his position after the final round of pit stops. This would ensure the team came home in guaranteed first and second position, without risking a collision between the two, and therefore maximising points for the Constructor’s Championship (and the lucrative rewards that come with it). This is a ‘tactic’ know as ‘team orders’. Indeed straight after the race one of the Red Bull team on the pit lane made it clear to Vettel over the radio that what he had done was in clear contravention of team orders, “Good job Seb. Looks like you wanted it bad enough. Still you’ve got some explaining to do.” 

Team orders were also in operation for the Mercedes team at the Malaysian Grand Prix as Nico Rosberg, who believed he was the faster of the two Mercedes drivers, was repeatedly ordered to stay behind Lewis Hamilton by team boss Ross Brawn. Unlike Vettel he followed team orders, with Hamilton finishing 3rd and Rosberg 4th. On the podium afterwards Vettel and Webber had a heated exchange with Webber’s anger clear for all to see, as was Hamilton’s sheepish embarrassment. Vettel did apologise later but it did not seem particularly genuine or contrite.

F1 is a macho world of speed and excitement where the drivers have to be single minded (and often arrogant and/or ruthless) to achieve success. Clearly this does not sit well with a ‘team’ sport. Team orders have been ever present in all kinds of motorsport, the first stand out example in F1 being in 1955 between Juan Manuel Fangio and Sterling Moss at Silverstone, and controversy usually follows. In essence what team orders achieve, with drivers not racing to their best efforts, is a kind of sporting motivated (i.e. non-betting related) match-fixing (or race-fixing if you prefer).

After several blatant high profile instances of team orders in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, which drew the ire of F1’s fans primarily, the FIA (the governing body of world motorsport) and the teams decided to insert a clause in the F1 Sporting Regulations specifically banning team orders from the 2003 season onwards, “Team orders that interfere with a race result are prohibited.” Now this widely drafted clause is all well and good but how do you enforce such a rule? The problem of enforcement became apparent during a number of an suspect incidents, one of which occurred in the 2010 German Grand Prix, when Felipe Massa of Ferrari let his teammate Fernando Alonso pass him having been given the loaded message from his race engineer over the radio that, “Fernando is faster than you. Can you confirm you understand that message?” The FIA, despite everyone else judging this to be a clear and flagrant breach of the prohibition on team orders, merely fined Ferrari $100,000 but the result stood. 

The most heinous instance of team orders in the history of motorsport (not just F1), dubbed ‘Crashgate’, happened during this period of team order prohibition at the 2008 Singapore Grand Prix. Nelson Piquet Jr, of the Renault team, alleged that he had been asked by the team to deliberately crash to improve the race situation for his teammate Fernando Alonso. This brought the safety car out on track with Alonso subsequently going on to win the race. Despite contrasting evidence from all parties, which implicated Renault F1 boss Flavio Briatore and Chief Engineer Pat Symonds, the fact that Briatore received an indefinite ban from F1 from the World Motorsports Council suggests life endangering team orders had been issued to Piquet.

Despite the above incidents (and others not detailed here), rather than more stringently enforcing the prohibition, and the sly attempts to circumnavigate it, the FIA and teams announced the prohibition was to be removed from the Sporting Regulations for the 2011 Season onwards allowing unsavoury situations as those in Malaysia to take place. So is there a satisfactory balance that can be struck?

On the one hand, teams want to maximise their position in the Constructors Championship, and the prize money and sponsorship that comes with it. Therefore teams need to prevent collisions between drivers in their team. However, fans, TV viewers and legitimate gamblers (among other stakeholders) are being denied an open and fair race and competition. If a prohibition were re-introduced (as has been suggested) then detection, and subsequent enforcement, is not actually that difficult in practice. As journalist Jonathan McEvoy says, “You can usually see when a race is being shuffled around by looking at what is happening on the track in conjunction with hearing what is said on the radio, even if it is delivered in coded jargon.” 

One slightly off-the-wall suggestion I propose for F1 is to allow each team to only enter one car, thereby removing the team orders problem completely. This would also perhaps achieve a second commercial (and fan) objective of no one manufacturer dominating the sport and a greater variety of manufacturers being financially viable by only having to run one car?

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About the Author

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin Carpenter

Kevin is a advisor and member of the editorial board for LawInSport, having previously acted as editor. In his day-to-day work he has two roles: as the Principal for his own consultancy business Captivate Legal & Sports Solutions, and Special Counsel for Sports Integrity at leading global sports technology and data company Genius Sports.

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