Pit Stop

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 June, 2007, 12:00am

Question: when are team orders not team orders? When it's called 'team strategy'. That's what McLaren called their decision to tell their drivers to back off and not fight each other for the lead at Monaco a fortnight ago. It seems McLaren, and Ron Dennis in particular, have very short memories.

Team orders have been banned since 2002, and for good reason. At the Austrian Grand Prix that year Rubens Barrichello was ordered by Ferrari to hand the lead over to teammate Michael Schumacher. It infuriated the crowd who booed the podium ceremony and it prompted FIA to take action by banning team orders. As I recall, the other teams weren't too chuffed either.

The FIA has decided not to take action against McLaren for what happened in the principality, finding that no rules had been broken. To some extent it is possible to have a little sympathy with the British team.

Monaco is not a place for overtaking. When cars are as close as Alonso and Hamilton's there is normally only one way to get past; when a driver makes a mistake. With the barriers within inches of the cars, a mistake normally means a crash and that could have taken out one, or both McLarens. That's why Ron Dennis uttered the sentence that caused the furore: 'There will be places where they are absolutely free to race, but this isn't one of them.'

The other thing to point out is that this is nothing like Austria. Hamilton was behind Alonso, he wasn't being asked to move aside for him. As a team, McLaren have a duty to get a one-two finish if at all possible. For them, the constructor's championship is just as important as the driver's version. With Ferrari having a rare off weekend, it was a chance to rack up the points. The fight between the two teams is close and unpredictable and McLaren know they may not be so dominant in Montreal this weekend.

Being on a different pit-stop strategy didn't help Hamilton's cause. If the safety car had come out he probably would have won the race. But it didn't and that is a variable the team can't control.

So far so plausible for McLaren. Officially they have done nothing wrong, but the affair still leaves a bad taste. The race, or more precisely the lack of racing, was deeply frustrating for neutral fans. They don't pay big money to attend races to witness a ground version of the Red Arrows. Formation driving, no matter how precise and fast, isn't racing.

Television audiences in Britain and no doubt around the world had been boosted by the arrival of a fresh, new and exciting talent in Hamilton. These potential converts to the sport not unreasonably expected to see some action, a hint of a battle. The nature of Monaco doesn't help admittedly, but neither does the instruction to 'ease off' when we would like to see the two fastest drivers in the race slug it out.

If it was frustrating for the fans, just imagine how it must have been for Hamilton. This is a man who has been associated with McLaren almost since he was in short trousers. He is the ultimate company man and owes Ron Dennis everything, yet you could feel his sense of injustice at how the race unfolded.

In doing what he did, Dennis runs the risk of Hamilton feeling that Alonso is being favoured. Although Hamilton is a sensible young man it would be easy to have sown the seed of a grudge in Monaco.

McLaren have always preached there is never a number-one driver in their team, that both are treated equally when it comes to preparing for a race. It's a policy that is to be lauded, but a policy that was seriously examined after the last race. Let's hope it's business as usual on the wider tarmac of a proper racetrack in Canada. With a chance to pass, Hamilton may just take that first place he covets so much.