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There’s no ‘I’ in team… or is there?

The high-octane, champagne fuelled world of Formula 1 draws in tens of millions of viewers every year, and rightly so. The combination of ultra-high-speed racing and split-second decision making ensures it is one of the most exciting sports available today. But when I first became invested in the sport, what intrigued me most was the team structure – how could F1 possibly function as a team sport when there is only ever one winner? 

Each driver’s biggest competitor will always be their teammate. The playing field between them is levelled as they are driving the same car and so outperforming one’s teammate is purely down to skill. Not only are they competing to keep their seat in future seasons, but if one driver can establish their dominance over their teammate, then they will take priority for strategy and team orders where applicable. This fight is intensified even further in middle-of-the-pack teams because the drivers are more easily replaceable, and both scoring points and proving oneself is much harder. There is also less guarantee for finding a seat elsewhere if a driver does lose their position in a team. Quite often in these teams there is also competition with the young talent in the form of reserve drivers – most notably in Singapore 2023 where Liam Lawson provided Alpha Tauri’s (now RB) highest finish of the season on his Formula 1 debut. 

Whilst teams often encourage healthy competition between their drivers, rivalries can quickly become detrimental for the team, as was the case for Alpine in 2023. Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly have never been the best of friends, but Alpine had hoped that they would overcome this for the sake of an all-French line-up. However, crashes between the two drivers resulted in double DNF’s for the team in both Australia and Hungary. This is why driver selection is one of the most important decisions a Team Principal can make. Friendly competition is inevitable, but not only do antics like those of the Alpine drivers cost the team millions in car repairs (and themselves in grid positions if caps are exceeded); but additionally, every position lost in the Constructors’ Championship represents a loss of $9 million in prize money at the end of the season. 

In stark contrast to this, perhaps the greatest example of teamwork in recent F1 history was in Abu Dhabi in 2021. Sergio Perez’s refusal to allow Hamilton the easy overtake resulted in his Red Bull teammate, Verstappen, making up almost four seconds against the Mercedes driver, putting him safely back in the fight for the win and therefore the championship. The move provided no benefit to Perez’ own race or personal standings but was arguably integral in leading to his teammate securing his first title in the Drivers’ Championship. However, don’t mistake this to mean Perez and Verstappen are the best of friends; in Brazil in 2022, Verstappen disobeyed direct team orders to give his place back to Perez in order to improve Perez’s chances of beating Leclerc to P2 in the Drivers’ Championship. At the time Verstappen had already won the Championship, and the position had been Perez’ earlier on in the race. Allegedly, he refused the swap due to Perez’ apparently intentional crash at Qualifying in Monaco earlier that year, which resulted in Perez starting ahead of Verstappen and led to him winning the Grand Prix. To directly ignore team orders in this manner is extremely uncommon. Not only would the switch benefit Perez without  any negative consequences for Verstappen, but the extra points would also be crucial to the team in securing their position in the Constructors’ Championship. Whilst we can never be sure if Verstappen’s reasons really were related to Monaco and revenge, his actions nonetheless raised a worrying question for the team: not only because there was evident tension between their drivers, but also because they had little guarantee that team orders would be respected by either driver going forward. 

There are also plenty of cases where team orders can be at the significant expense of one driver. In Australia earlier this year, a bad crash in Free Practice resulted in Alex Albon damaging the chassis of his car. In order to save money, Williams don’t have a spare chassis on hand, meaning they would only have one car competing for the rest of the weekend. Given that Albon is the more experienced driver and therefore considered to be more likely to score points, it was decided that he would drive his teammate Sargent’s car for the remainder of the weekend. The move was widely supported by pundits as it was seen to be ‘for the good of the team’, but when Albon failed to pick up any points, it left many fans resenting the Williams leadership for prioritising Albon so significantly, especially when he was responsible for the lack of a second car anyway. Many teams do have designated first and second drivers based on performance and experience, but this can lead to despondent drivers if they feel they aren’t being recognised. Arguably most famously, after a severe crash caused a double DNF in Azerbaijan in 2018, relationships between the then Red Bull drivers reached breaking point as Ricciardo refused to be a second driver to Verstappen, resulting in him leaving the Red Bull team. However, many would argue that this was the beginning of the end for his career – perhaps a driver is better off being the ‘designated second driver’ in a winning team than the prioritised driver in a team lower down the standings. 

When drivers are faced with expiring contracts, a spanner is thrown in the mix depending on who terminated the contract. Hamilton’s decision to leave Mercedes at the end of this year could lead the team down one of two pathways: do they prioritise Hamilton as a sign of respect for the many years of success they had together so as to give him as good a send-off as possible? Or do they focus their efforts on Russell who is arguably more committed to the team and who Mercedes are likely to want to hold on to for several years to come? On the other side of the equation, Sainz has something to prove both to Ferrari (as he surely wants them to regret dropping him), but also to the rest of The Paddock (with the hopes of securing a seat for next year). I’m sure he feels that finishing on the podium of every race he’s driven in this year is a good start! Additionally, there is little incentive for Sainz to obey team orders which aren’t in his best interests as there are minimal consequences and he surely doesn’t feel he owes Ferrari anything. 

With at least twelve drivers out of contract at the end of this season, it is likely that several driver line-ups will change, resulting in new rookies, new rivalries and new challenges for drivers and strategists alike. It is evident that team dynamics will continue to play a crucial role in the politics of F1, and I, for one, am looking forward to sitting back and watching it all unfold. 

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