Team orders turn GP into a circus

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MISTAKES and mishaps muck up the race at Monaco. PETER COSTER reports:

THE Monaco Grand Prix around the winding streets of the European principality would have been a different race were it not for the increasing interference of team orders.

The most obvious example of this was the ruined race of Monaco-born Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc.

And not for the first time after the 21-year-old Ferrari rookie has come under team orders at four of the six races this year.

The Monegasque driver ignored an order to stay behind Vettel at the Bahrain Grand Prix, radioing, “I’m quicker,” before storming past the four-times German world champion.

He would have won at Bahrain until forced to drop back to third after an engine issue.

But the team orders continued. At the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, Leclerc passed Vettel on the first corner. He was later ordered to let Vettel past, which made no difference to the race result.

At the Azerbaijan GP at Baku, Leclerc dominated practice and was trying too hard when he ploughed into the barriers.

“I am stupid, I am stupid,” he lamented on the team radio, but having to deal with team orders, as well as Sebastian Vettel being given precedence, contributed to overcooking a corner after his soft compound tyres were changed to mediums.

Leclerc was then running eighth in the British Grand Prix when he had to retire with a loose wheel after a pit stop.

At the Spanish Grand Prix, Ferrari mechanics cross-threaded a wheel nut and Leclerc again found himself behind Vettel.

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At Monaco, Leclerc had set the pace in practice but another Ferrari mistake made him miss the cut for qualifying.

“Is it safe?” Leclerc asked the computer nerds on the pit wall after he put in a hot lap, reprising the line from Laurence Olivier as the Nazi dentist in Marathon Man drilled into a nerve in one of Dustin Hoffman’s teeth.

The computer logarithm decided Leclerc had a sufficient buffer on the other teams to make sure he made the top 10 for qualifying.

Leclerc wasn’t so sure and his instinct was right. The computer did not allow for what Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto called “variability due to drivers feeling confidence”.

He could have said, “going faster,” which is something drivers usually do when faced with beginning relegated to the back of the grid.

“Computer says no,” said David Walliams in Little Britain, but Binotto admitted it should have been Ferrari that said “no”.

“We should have overruled the computer but we didn’t,” the Ferrari boss admitted at an embarrassing press conference.

The young Leclerc, who used to catch the school bus on the same Monaco streets, was forced to start 15th before he tangled with Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and retired.

His consolation was an enthusiastic embrace from Princess Charlene, who is married to Prince Albert, the son of Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly, who once ruled over the fairytale principality.

The Monaco Grand Prix always draws the rich and famous and was once described by Somerset Maugham as “a sunny place for shady people”.

There were surely more than one or two among the thousands who fiddled a pass to crowd the track and pit lane before the race.

Ferrari aside, tangled team orders and mistakes bedevilled other drivers.

An “unsafe release” saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen lock wheels with the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas as they left the pits during the race. Drivers have a narrow view of what is coming down the pit lane behind them and Verstappen, through no fault of his own, was given a five-second penalty.

This meant that even had he been able to pass eventual winner Lewis Hamilton in the leading Mercedes, he would have had to cross the finish more than five seconds in front of him.

That didn’t stop Verstappen from doing “everything I could to pass Lewis”.

It turned what was the usual procession on the tight Monte Carlo circuit into a nail-biter. Verstappen was less than a second behind Hamilton and they touched going into the harbour chicane on the second last lap.

Hamilton went straight on and Verstappen made the turn, but the stewards decided the Dutch driver forced Hamilton off the track and no penalty was given.

But should Hamilton have been penalised because he missed the chicane, while Verstappen stayed on the track as he lunged through on the inside? Hamilton could have been penalised the same five seconds and the flying Dutchman would have won the race.

Verstappen’s drive was disciplined and courageous. The tearaway of last year would have crashed through or crashed. Not at Monaco. The Dutchman’s performance was as impressive as that of the Red Bull’s Honda engine, which last year was an also-ran.

But as remarkable as Verstappen’s performance was the victory of Lewis Hamilton after his Mercedes team made as great a mistake as Red Bull in sending Verstappen into the path of Bottas while leaving the pits.

Mercedes put the wrong tyres on Hamilton’s car. They should have changed his tyres to “hards” but sent him out on “mediums”.

“You have lost the race,” Hamilton screamed over the radio at his race engineer.

Hamilton faced another 67 laps on rubber that was wearing as thin as his nerves as Verstappen closed on him.

“It was obviously the wrong call,” admitted Mercedes chief Toto Wolff. Hamilton called it his “hardest race”.

Highly emotional as he held aloft his helmet, painted in the colours of Niki Lauda who died only days earlier, Hamilton said the car was suffering from massive understeer.”

“With sheer will I just kept pushing,” said the five-times world champion. “I really, really tried my best to stay focused and not crack under pressure. I did it for Niki.”

Lauda, the Mercedes non-executive chairman and three-times world champion, was responsible for bringing Hamilton to Mercedes. Hamilton has never forgotten the phone call that changed his career.

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Lauda’s death came as a shock although he had undergone a double lung transplant a year ago after being badly burnt in a crash at the Nürburgring in 1976.

The movie, Rush, showed the battle for the world championship that year between Lauda and James Hunt.

Lauda was back in the driver’s seat eight weeks later at the Italian Grand Prix before Hunt took the title that year when Lauda retired in torrential rain in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Hunt said modestly after the race that he continued in the shocking conditions because he had “big balls”.

Team orders and mistakes at Monaco did not stop with Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes.

Daniel Ricciardo was sixth on the grid in his best qualifying performance this year for the French Renault team.

He jumped to fifth in front of Haas driver Kevin Magnussen after a brilliant start; never Ricciardo’s strong point.

But his luck ran out when Leclerc ran into the “Hulk” and the safety car was called out.

The leading four cars were ordered into the pits and Ricciardo was told to follow them.

The problem for the Australian driver was that the four drivers behind him, Carlos Sainz, Daniil Kvyat, Alex Albon and Romain Grosjean, stayed out.

“I had no time to react or react differently,” said Ricciardo after the race. “But obviously it wasn’t the right call. We came in and just handed everyone else a position.

“We had a great start, had a good turn one and got into fifth and that was really our place, so it’s a shame. We could have had a big result today.”

Letting drivers race with a minimum of interference is what race fans want to see. Realising their favourite driver has been held back or his chances ruined because of team orders gives a new meaning to the F1 “circus”.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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