Team Orders at Sauber?
I'm broadly in support of customer cars in F1 - but only if a high degree of Independence can be maintained. The events of the Malaysian Grand Prix, where some have accused the Sauber team of ordering Perez to stay behind Alonso in deference to the team's relationship with Ferrari, have reinforced some of these thoughts.
First thing to make clear is that I do not believe Sauber did order Perez to hold off. The radio message was, “Checo [Perez], be careful, we need this position, we need this position”. Though this was a disappointing message to hear as the race built to a thrilling crescendo it sounded more like a team telling their young driver not to take too many risks while battling for the lead. If I was to paraphrase, I would understand the message to be, 'Checo, have go at him, but don't be daft sunshine'!
At the end of 2009, when BMW unceremoniously pulled the plug on its F1 programme, Peter Sauber came back out of retirement, presumably investing huge sums of his own money again, to rescue the team bearing his name. The last two years have been tough, with sponsorship hard to come by (compare the number of adverts on Perez's overalls in the press conference compared with Hamilton and Alonso). But the team has survived. At the end of the race Peter Sauber was in tears, along with others in his team, with this result not only vindicating the personal investment and struggle of the last two years, but also going a very long way to sealing the team's future, with the prize money, points and exposure to potential investors. All that would have been wiped out if Perez had taken off a front wing in an ambitious late-lunge on Alonso. Personally I think it's to Sauber's great credit they allowed Perez to push as hard as he did for as long as he did - it would have been so easy to ask him to maintain the gap back to Hamilton. Not only did they not do that, but they also still allowed him to fight for the win - but to just be a bit sensible in doing it.
It's also been asserted the radio message also put Perez off his stride, leading to the slight off-track excursion at Turn 14. Again, I disagree. Remember the infamous 'maintain the gap' message to Mark Webber at the British Grand Prix last year? Well, when we heard that on the world feed it seemed like it came on the last two laps - it later turned out it was several laps before then. It's perfectly possible that the message to Perez was a few laps before we heard it - and the fact that he was pushing enough to go off track a few laps later could then be read as further evidence Sauber did not call off the chase.
A final contention I've also seen on this is that Perez ignored the team call. This makes even less sense to me. Not only then would he be damaging his relationship with Sauber, but also with the Ferrari team so many think he will be driving for sooner rather than later. Can anyone see Ferrari replacing Massa with someone who clearly can't cope with the radio message, 'Checo, Alonso is quicker than you'?! My personal belief in this instance is well and truly that there was no order - from either Sauber or Ferrari - and that the two teams/drivers were racing, and racing hard - albeit with a nervous team management asking Perez to keep the car out of the wall.
However, I have digressed in this post even more than Maldonado digressed across the gravel in qualifying, so back to my original point about customer cars. When teams are perceived to be beholden to other teams, it affects the credibility of the sport. In this case, although the relationship between Ferrari and Sauber does seem to have some political dimension, it is predominantly a simple engine supply relationship. But even that has allowed discussion which detracts slightly from what should be seen as one of the best feel-good results of recent seasons. Look at the sheer number of conspiracy theories generated by one small radio message! Imagine how much more of this we'd get if Ferrari did have a full customer team!
I'm still in support of customer cars, if they can help bring in new teams who will go on to be serious and independent race teams (even if they use customer cars permanently). But to open the door to relationships where teams are believed to have no independence would have a negative effect on the sport, with more and more talking points becoming about how the parent team has held back their customer. The sport should think long and hard before allowing changes that permit this to happen.
Author: Chris Page
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