BusyFormula #039: Could early-season team orders cost Red Bull?

During the Spanish Grand Prix, Sergio Perez found himself in the lead on lap 31 of 66, with a shot at victory. However, on lap 47, he was told Verstappen was on a different strategy and should be let through if he’s quicker, to which he responded, “That’s very unfair, but okay.”

He let Verstappen through on lap 49 and finished second, saying on the radio that he was happy for the team, but they needed to speak later. Red Bull got a 1-2, taking P1 in the constructors’ championship, while Verstappen led the drivers’ championship by six points.

Was the decision fair?

On the technical side, Verstappen’s strategy left him with a relatively easy gap to close. Furthermore, because his DRS had been malfunctioning, one can argue it was fair for him to get extra support from the team later on. You can also argue Verstappen made his own race much harder, getting caught out by a tailwind and losing positions when he went off track.

I think the decision wasn’t unfair. The pit wall doesn’t have to first let teammates battle viciously and risk a crash just to show fairness. The orders came in when Verstappen was under three seconds behind Perez with 19 more laps and fresher mediums, meaning the overtake was imminent. The timing and delivery of the message weren’t unpleasant either.

It’s all about capitalizing on the opponents’ slip-ups. At no point did the Red Bull pit wall have strong reason to believe Verstappen’s victory chances were zero. So with a sudden chance to leapfrog Ferrari in both championships, it makes sense to do things the way they did.

Remember, Mercedes exercised team orders in Barcelona last year, and it was only the fourth round. Sure, the points gap was much larger, but Bottas could still catch up. In the constructors’ championship, points scored by teammates add up to a greater total.

But in the drivers’ championship, one driver’s gain is often their teammate’s loss. If Perez was in Verstappen’s shoes, he’d also appreciate that support to get ahead in the drivers’ championship. Would Perez be a fair teammate if he preferred an opposing team’s driver who had just retired from the race to stay in the championship lead?

Monaco in context

Monaco is one of those tracks where qualifying is crucial since overtaking is difficult. In the past, we’ve seen drivers being accused of deliberately ending the session to prevent other drivers from putting in better laps. Nico Rosberg faced such accusations in 2014, and in 2006, Schumacher was penalized for his session-ending move. When Perez crashed on his final Q3 lap in Monaco with his teammate still behind him, it was bound to raise eyebrows.

Perez attributed the crash to drivers not respecting the delta, leaving him with cold tires. Nevertheless, such events can leave many bitter, especially if you win the race, which he did. At some point, it ceases to matter what your teammate does deliberately or not.

All that matters is what it ultimately costs you.

Will Perez take more points away from Verstappen?

Going by last season’s performance, one might say Perez knows he’s a number two and will spend more time supporting Verstappen’s bid for the drivers’ championship than getting in the way. The 2021 Turkish, Sao Paulo and Abu Dhabi Grands Prix are good examples.

And while it’s tempting to assume Verstappen will eventually stretch the points gap to his teammate massively, things could unfold differently. Ferrari could steal more points, and a later Mercedes rejuvenation might keep things even tighter at the top.

As long as the title is reasonably within reach for teammates, you can’t completely rule out flashpoints, and team orders won’t always be followed. And even when the number two gradually slips out of the title race, they can still try to snatch a few wins to remain relevant.

For instance, in 2020, Bottas joked about deliberately qualifying third in Sochi. And while he didn’t maximize the tow you get from the pole sitter at the start on this track, he still won the race. F1 is a complex web of politics, and every driver has someone rooting for them.

From mechanics to fans and sponsors, many stakeholders contribute to a driver’s momentum. FIA action can also inadvertently alter the complexion of a title race. Personally, I don’t think there will be any severely damaging battles between the Red Bull drivers.

I don’t believe Perez tried to use Monaco as payback. However, I think he’ll have a few more instances of aggression down the road, which could make Verstappen’s title bid a little trickier.

But while we focus on battles, we can’t rule out an eventual loss of morale that dampens performance. It’s nice if you don’t have to battle with your teammate, but not nice if they are qualifying and racing too poorly to back you up in strategy.

Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.

Duncan Ngabirano Aijuka