By Frank Santoroski, Staff Writer
As recently as a week ago, three-time World Driving Champion, Lewis Hamilton, was quoted in the press as stating that his relationship with Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg was better than ever. The two had evidently spent some quality time together poolside and hashed out their differences. Fast forward to this morning, where Hamilton came out as the winner following a last-lap collision between teammates in the Austrian Grand Prix, and that is sure to change.
In a series where races are often decided by obscene margins of victory, a final lap with the competitors nose-to-tail was a refreshing change. And, more importantly, a on-track rivalry that is ready to reach the boiling point is something Formula One desperately needs.
In 2014, F1 announced a new system that did away with team numbers, and allowed drivers to select a car number of their choice that they can be identified with for their entire career. It should be noted that, once the selections were made, the number 2 remained unclaimed. Unlike other forms of motorsport, where guys like Brad Keselowski or Juan Pablo Montoya proudly display the number 2 on their merchandise, that particular number holds an ugly stigma in Formula One.
Before the new system, if you had the number 2 on your car, it signified the fact that your teammate was World Champion. Factor into that equation the fact that F1 has a history of pecking orders within teams, with the lesser teammate being referred to a the ‘Number 2 driver’. Holding that distinction within a team often meant that you would be on the short end of the stick when of came to team orders.
While the Mercedes team has been adamant that team orders do not exist within the organization, team principal, Toto Wolff, may be leaning towards that direction following today’s debacle. It was back in 2014 at Spa that Rosberg was accused of running Hamilton off the track, “just to prove a point.” Since then, the two have had an on-again/off-again relationship that has tended to favor Lewis Hamilton in the results column.
While an intense, and sometimes ugly, rivalry can be toxic within the team, it is, in an odd way, actually healthy for the sport. With absolutely no regard towards parity among the competitors, Formula One opens itself up for a single team to dominate the proceedings and make the season…well, boring.
A solid rivalry within a team adds intrigue, drama, and color to a sport that has a history of becoming processional and highly predictable.
A quick look back at some number 2 drivers that rejected that role adds a little perspective. In 1981, Williams driver, Carlos Reutemann flatly refused to let his teammate, reigning Champion Alan Jones, through for the win in Brazil despite the fact that team orders were clearly displayed on the pit board. This set up an uneasiness between the two that continued through the season. With Reutemann in the points lead at season’s end, Jones stated that he “wouldn’t do a damn thing” to assist in Reutemann’s quest for the title. Jones took the race win in the finale, as Reutemann lost the championship to Nelson Piquet by one point.
In 1982, we saw two different ‘number 2’ drivers step out of bounds. With team cars running 1-2 in the waning laps at San Marino, Ferrari driver Didier Pironi balked team orders to ‘hold position’ when he chopped directly across the front wing of his teammate, Gilles Villeneuve, to steal the win. Villeneuve was so incensed that he swore to never speak to Pironi again. Sadly, Villeneuve never did speak to his teammate again, losing his life in a crash a few weeks later at Zolder.
That same season, Rene Arnoux, driving for Renault, was none too happy with being upstaged by his younger teammate Alain Prost. With national pride on the line, Arnoux refused to hand Prost the win at the French Grand Prix, a move that ultimately handed the championship to the Williams team.
In 1986 young Nigel Mansell was paired with two-time champion Nelson Piquet at Williams. The conflict was epic between the young buck trying to make a name for himself, and the established champion protecting his turf. The two were so intent on taking points from one another over the course of the season, that Alain Prost ended up taking the championship for McLaren.
During a stretch that saw him win five consecutive titles, Michael Schumacher had a contract with Ferrari that ensured his number 1 status. While teammate Reubens Barrichello certainly adhered to his contract, it was not without controversy. In 2002, Barrichello was headed for a certain win in Austria when the team order came through to yield to Schumacher. Barrichello obliged, but he did so by slowing dramatically right before the line, making the farce blatantly obvious to the entire world. His actions resulted in fines to the team, and the creation of an unenforceable rule abolishing team orders in the series.
Of course, all of these rivalries pale in comparison to the tumultuous relationship shared between Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna at McLaren between 1988 and 1989. With two of the finest drivers in F1 history simultaneously employed by the top team of the era, sparks were sure to fly.
Prost, who had two championships under his belt when Senna joined the team, accused his younger teammate of dangerous driving amidst claims that Senna was getting preferential treatment from the engine supplier, Honda. All of this animosity famously came to a head during the season-ending Japanese Grand Prix in 1989 where the two collided on the track, handing Prost the title.
In disgust, Prost left the team to join Ferrari in 1990, only to see his rivalry with Senna grow more epic in proportion. With the title on the line, the two once again collided in Japan, this time with Senna coming out on top. The press coverage through this period was incredible. Now, more than 25 years later, this rivalry is still referenced as one of the seminal moments in Grand Prix history.
Will the tensions between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg soon explode to the level that Prost and Senna experienced? Or will the politically-correct, overly-sanitized F1 that we see today force the boys to ‘play nice’ and rob the world of some true drama in the series?