By MARK LORENZANA
The importance of a team strategy cannot be overstated in motorsports, especially in Formula 1.
“I think it was close (between me and Max Verstappen), but I think it’s a great team result and I’m happy for that,” said Mexican F1 driver Sergio “Checo” Pérez in a post-race interview, after he finished second behind Red Bull Racing teammate Verstappen, whose first-place finish in the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday, May 22, gave him his 24th overall in his career.
“I’m extremely happy to be on the podium for the first time in the Spanish Grand Prix,” Pérez added.
It was a great team result indeed, as Pérez’s second-place finish and Verstappen’s win completed an excellent one-two punch for Red Bull in Barcelona. Red Bull is currently leading in the Constructors’ Championship standings with 195 points, followed by Ferrari with 169 and Mercedes in third place with 120 points. It was a great individual result as well for Verstappen, who took the overall Driver’s Championship lead from Charles Leclerc after the latter’s Ferrari retired midway through the race.
Perhaps one can be forgiven, though, if he or she chooses to take Pérez’s statement of “I’m extremely happy” with a grain of salt.
After all, Pérez was leading Sunday’s race at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya when the Red Bull team asked the Mexican driver to let his teammate pass him on lap 49 of 66. (Sound a little reminiscent of what happened to Ken Miles in “Ford vs. Ferrari”?)
“It’s very unfair, but okay,” a disgruntled Pérez said. Later, he added, “I am happy for the team. But we need to speak later.”
The first-place win, had he not given way to Verstappen, would have been just the third of Pérez’s career. Checo finished ahead of Mercedes’ George Russell in third. Fourth was Spaniard Carlos Sainz Jr. in the other Ferrari.
In the Drivers’ Championship standings, as it stands right now, Verstappen leads the pack with 110 points, followed by Leclerc with 104. Pérez, a distant third, has 85.
It didn’t really matter who among the Red Bull drivers finished first; after all, a one-two punch of Pérez and Verstappen (as opposed to a Verstappen-Pérez) would have still yielded a big win team-wise. But it made more sense for Red Bull to ask Checo to give way to his teammate because Verstappen had a bigger chance of overtaking Leclerc in the drivers’ standings. Before the race, Leclerc was the Drivers’ Championship leader with 104 points, 19 ahead of Verstappen in second, with Pérez in third, 19 points behind Verstappen.
There is, after all, the question of who is atop the pecking order.
A month ago, for example, former F1 driver and current Sky Sport commentator Ralph Schumacher told F1 Insider that he believed the pecking order within the Ferrari team when it came to their drivers had already been established — Leclerc vs. Sainz — which made Sainz angry as a result.
Still talking about the pecking order between drivers, avid F1 fans, especially Ferrari fans, might remember the time when team orders — the practice of teams issuing instructions to drivers to deviate from the normal practice of racing against each other as they would against other teams’ drivers, which is accomplished simply by establishing a pecking order between the drivers within the team or instructing a driver to let his teammate overtake him or to hold position without the risk of collision — resulted in Ferrari number-two driver Rubens Barrichello giving way to teammate Michael Schumacher at the Austrian Grand Prix in 2002. In the last few meters of the final lap of that race, Barrichello surrendered the win to Schumacher because he had been instructed to do so by the team over the radio.
Back then, the F1 governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) felt that this action made something of a mockery of the sport, and created a ruling that prohibited teams from interfering with the race order between their two drivers. At the end of the 2010 season, however, the FIA conceded that the team-orders rule was not working and needed to be reviewed. As of 2011, the team-orders rule no longer appeared in sporting regulations.
In F1, even though the drivers are the stars, they still need to adhere to a sound team strategy; indeed, in what appears to be the most solitary of sports, the importance of a team strategy cannot be overstated.
In boxing, for example, when the bell rings, a fighter goes out to the center of the ring alone to face his opponent. But in between rounds, when he retires to his corner to rest, sip some water and have his cuts, bruises, bleeding nose or any other swelling tended to by the cutman, it’s also time to listen to his trainer or coach. (In F1, the boxer’s corner — with the cutman and coach/trainer — may be seen as equivalent to the pit-stop crew and the pit-wall crew, a trackside row of racing team staff seated at computers watching real-time data streams from car sensors and making strategic decisions, giving out instructions to their drivers electronically and via radio communications.) Many a boxing trainer have successfully turned around a fighter’s fortunes through sound in-fight strategy, where a losing fighter, behind on the scorecards, had to tweak a part of his game plan and eventually had his arms raised at the end of the contest.
Needless to say, pre-fight and in-fight strategies and planning are important aspects in boxing, almost as important as the fight itself, which is why boxers need to hire not only the best coach they can find, but also an experienced cutman and a professional nutritionist to build their team. This can be said as well for other combat sports such as Muay Thai and mixed martial arts (MMA).
In combat sports, however, there is a clear pecking order: The fighter, of course, is the most important part of the team.
In Formula One, it’s also clear — the drivers come first.
The question is — and still talking about the pecking order — which driver?