While everyone’s debating whether Lewis Hamilton was right to ignore his Mercedes team’s order to speed up at the end of yesterday’s season finale, I’ve come to the conclusion that F1's inherent team vs. driver conflict is something that will never truly make sense.
Admittedly, I tend to be sympathetic to the team’s side. They have a manufacturer’s championship to win. It’s their equipment. They have every right to dictate how it’s used to maximize championship points and minimize repairs.
Yet at this weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Mercedes had already won the 2016 constructor’s championship. It was the last race for the 2016 cars, too. Sure, a 1-2 result would help pad Merc’s statistics, but I found myself weirdly okay with Hamilton defying his team’s instructions.
Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg were the only two contenders left in the season-long world drivers’ championship in Abu Dhabi. If Rosberg finished on the podium, Hamilton’s win wouldn’t matter—Rosberg would be the champion. But if Rosberg wasn’t on the podium, Hamilton’s race win would give him the championship.
Hamilton was leading the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. With Rosberg in second position, Hamilton slowed down to bunch up traffic behind him—thus, making his teammate easier to pass. It was a clever strategy and made the action at the front of the race a fascinating watch—which was all too rare this season.
No matter how the race ended, a Mercedes driver was going to become the 2016 F1 world drivers’ champion. If there was ever a time to just let the two race, this was it!
Mercedes asked Hamilton several times in the last half of the race to speed up, but Hamilton didn’t. After all, Hamilton has his own championship to think about.
Maybe I’ve never considered this strange team dynamic much because I really started following motorsports through F1 and endurance racing. Endurance racing is all about the team, and less about individual drivers, so it’s a weirdo. Formula One, however, has two high-profile championships that don’t always align with each other: drivers’ and constructors’.
Other series place less emphasis on their teams’ championships, placing the spotlight on the drivers’ title instead. Only the most die-hard stats geeks really celebrate the teams who win the most in NASCAR, for example. Teammates occasionally help each other there, but if two cars from the same team are battling for a win, all shake-and-bake-style courtesy often gets thrown out the window. It’s every driver on their own, because that’s the championship that matters.
When F1 re-allowed team orders, it put the spotlight back on the constructors’ championship. More of the strategy for winning the constructors’ championship is out in the open for fans to follow along as it unfolds. It’s an additional point of intrigue, too: who does the team expect to win more early in a season? Who may be the team favorite for other reasons?
Because F1 has made both team and driver interests a big deal, I have trouble formulating a hot, steamy take on the season finale. Mercedes was right, and Lewis was also right to disobey them. Their goals contradict in the most ridiculous way possible.
These warring team vs. driver interests are Formula One in a nutshell: high-profile drama built on concerns that are inherently at war with each other. That’s a persistent theme with the series. Many fans want costs to stay somewhat under control so we can have more competitive teams, but also want to see insane engineering feats—which usually aren’t cheap. We want F1 to be welcoming to new fans, but F1's entire identity is based upon exclusivity, glitz and glamour.
Perhaps it’s best that F1's dual championships don’t make sense, then. It’s more interesting that way.