Are You A #1 Or A #2

All this talk of team orders has got me thinking about another issue and that is the issue of having #1 and #2 drivers within a team. Not because of the Vettel and Webber affair from the Malaysian GP; clearly Sebastian Vettel is Red Bull’s  #1, just as Fernando Alonso is Ferrari’s #1. No, this is in response to the problem with the Mercedes boys.

While Red Bull politics were causing all kinds of drama, a quieter yet just as controversial issue was brewing at Mercedes between Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton and Ross Brawn the team principal. Before you get any ideas, no, this is not an F1 love triangle. Far from it. Rosberg has three years of seniority at Mercedes, during which he effectively dominated 7 time World Champion Michael Shumacher fair and square, plus he just re-upped with them in a multi-year, big money contract. Yet he was ordered to hold station and let Hamilton (the new guy) take the last step on the podium for the Malaysian GP. It generally appeared to all watching the race that Rosberg had the pace and life left in his tires to take the position away from Hamilton, yet as the laps counted down Brawn continued to reiterate the ‘hold position’ team order. At one point over the radio Rosberg replied to Brawn, “Remember this one,” for the entire F1 world to hear. Cheeky wouldn’t you say? But quite effective.

Quick note: there is some discussion being floated that there were fuel load issues due to the Mercedes cars having been short filled in anticipation of more rainfall which did not materialize. I don’t want to get into the technical aspects of the situation, suffice to say there were a number of factor in Ross’s “team order.” I am more interested in exploring the human aspect and how this issue is going to play itself out over the season.

So not only do we have this black cloud known as team orders hanging over the pit lane, along with the debatable issue of whether to follow them obediently or pull a Vettel and disregard them, we also have the problem of who is and who isn’t a team #1. Because team orders generally exist in order to favor one driver or another.

Will this picture be looked back on with the sentiment, if I only knew then what I know now. L to R, Ross, Nico, Lewis, and Toto Wolf.

Will this picture be looked back on with the sentiment, if I only knew then what I know now. L to R, Ross, Nico, Lewis, and Toto Wolf.

On the surface of it, this should be a very easy problem to sort out. Which driver has collected the most points (for the team) either in seasons past or so far in the current season? By this method we have a way to determine who is the #1 driver, it is nice and tidy and stats like this are not ambiguous. Lets take the top three teams for the last three years as an example and look at that in detail.

Here are the points for both drivers for the last 3 years.

Red Bull

2010                    2011                 2012

Vettel-256            Vettel-392         Vettel-281

Webber-242         Webber-258      Webber-179

Conclusion: Vettel is the #1, simple as that.

Ferrari

Alonso-252           Alonso-257     Alonso-278

Massa-144           Massa-118      Massa-122

Definitely no question here about who is the #1.

McLaren

Hamilton-240      Hamilton-227    Hamilton-190

Button-214          Button-270       Button-188

Ah. Interesting. Over 3 years, clearly Hamilton is the #1. But if we look at just 2011, was Button the #1 that year? And they weren’t so very far apart in 2012.

I say no. Even when the points favor Button I would still consider Lewis as McLaren’s #1 driver by virtue of this simple fact: They are both World Champions but Lewis is more capable of winning races than Button. Period. Now we can see how trouble begins. They’ve both won a World Championship (Button with a different team). Button outscores Hamilton in 2011, how does McLaren justify possibly favoring Hamilton? Not very comfortably when Button’s in the room.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg have so far have a good working relationship. There does not seem to be any uneasiness from the pairing thus far.

Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg appear to have a good working relationship. There does not seem to be any uneasiness from the pairing thus far.

Trying to solve the problem neatly with point totals also does not address Hamilton’s new team and teammate. There is virtually no comparable data between the two, yet because of Ross’s decision and Nico’s compliance some on the pit wall are already giving Lewis #1 status. Seems to me a cruel punishment for Nico doing the right thing.

We had the same problem back in 2010 over at Red Bull. Webber had a higher points tally than Vettel for most of the year. In fact right up to the last race. However, no one that watches F1 was under any illusion, Red Bull clearly treated Vettel as its #1 driver. I personally am OK with this, but don’t confuse this with me thinking that it is fair. (I posted about this issue when Front Wing-gate happened to Webber at the British GP if you’re interested.)

In an article by Andrew Benson titled “Chinese Grand Prix: Webber & Vettel Wounds Have Never Healed“, Webber states,  “Yeah, well, They didn’t exactly lay it on a plate for me in 2010, did they?” referring to Red Bull and how they never really supported his 2010 title campaign and at times lobbied against it. That doesn’t seem right in any context does it? Such is the issue that has been thrust on to the F1 stage, front and center.

Further muddying the waters, some teams are historically structured to have a #1 driver and a supporting driver, and they make no apologies about it. Many people would complain that it is not very sporting, but at the end of the day it is the team’s decision and their right to run their team as they see fit. The #1/#2 style has Ferrari written all over it and you can throw Red Bull into that camp as well. Now it looks like Mercedes might be joining their ranks, we’ll see. Ross Brawn was very successful with this strategy when he was at Ferrari, after all.

This issue has been causing problems as long as F1 has had teams – Williams had to deal with it during the Mansel and Piquet pairing going back some years. Let’s talk about Lewis and Fernando for a moment. I am 100% convinced that Mclaren lost the Drivers Championship to Kimi and Ferrari because due to in-team fighting, between both Lewis and Fernando. You can argue all you want that Ron Denis was right not to support Fernando that year and let Lewis race him, but the result was zero drivers championship. And of course the mother feud of them all, Senna and Prost when they both drove for McLaren. These passionate drivers made great copy and gained legions of fans but I am pretty sure their team owners were not too keen on the fallout and distractions that come along with feuding teammates. It did make for compelling racing and you know what I always say, as much as we fans complain about this and that, what is fair and not fair, we love the conflict, the drama, the struggle, the crash and burn, and ultimately the triumph. It’s what makes F1, well, F1.

Look, top teams are always going to try to employ the best drivers that can net them the most points and with that comes some particular issues. It makes logical sense that if a driver is a World Champion then they would expect different treatment. Is Vettel wrong to feel a little entitlement? Hamilton was brought to Mercedes to add World Champion cachet to the team. He took a risky chance leaving McLaren, shouldn’t he get some kind of preferential treatment? Fernando fits the big-ticket item that is Ferrari and one must say that even though he has yet to win them a championship, he has managed to keep the Scuderia relevant these last three years.

Friends now, but what does the future hold in store for these two?

Friends now, but what does the future hold in store for these two?

And then there is Schumacher. Ah Schumacher, who did bring multiple championships to Ferrari, but also demanded that the other Ferrari driver be contracted to play the supporting role. It seemed to work right up until Luca DiMontezemolo wanted Kimi Raikkonen and Kimi being Kimi was never going to sign that kind of deal. General consensus is that this is what forced Michael out of racing early the first time.

Back to Hamilton, he was hired by Mercedes to win a championship. Maybe not this year but definitely for 2014. Has he already established himself as the team’s #1? Many people think Ross’s team order did that for him. I’m not sure I would agree just yet.

I think Hamilton learned quite a bit from the feuding with Fernando, in retrospect he must see that his obsession with beating his teammate distracted from winning the championship. He corrected his behavior slightly while teammates with Button. Now he has mastered it even more. At the last GP, Hamilton was very gracious about the team order from Ross and all but gave the trophy to Rosberg by saying that Rosberg should have been on the podium for Malaysia. But don’t be fooled. Inside Lewis is a gritty fighter, like Fernando, like Sebastian. I think Hamilton is subtly but definitely drawing a line for Rosberg. His most recent pole and the first for Mercedes is playing right into this. I’m sure he is not feeling all that bad about Malaysia and now starting from pole he must feel justified that he was treated as a #1 three weeks ago.

So over at Red Bull the feuding and fireworks will continue, even though everyone except maybe Webber knows Vettel is the #1 driver. At Mercedes I don’t think Rosberg should, nor will, accept #2 very easily. A lot depends on this weekend in China. If Rosberg outperforms Lewis in the race, then message sent. He can fight for it. But he’s already missed one chance to send that message, since he could only manage 4th in qualifying while Hamilton took pole. So he better have a killer race. I don’t think Rosberg thinks he’s a #2 driver, and if he starts to feel that Ross has engineered something behind the scenes, similar to how Rubens Barrichello felt at Brawn GP when Button was being treated like a #1, then all bets are off and Mercedes could go the way of the Bull…          -jp-

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