Mathematically the drivers’ championship could still be won by anyone. Realistically, it’s likely to go to a Ferrari or McLaren driver, or just maybe one of the BMW duo.
At present all three teams are operating equal status policies for their drivers. But as we saw at the end of last season the earlier a team can switch to backing one driver the better it is for their prospects of winning the drivers’ title.
Last year Ferrari let both their drivers fight for the title – something we had not been accustomed to seeing in the days of Michael Schumacher. But sensibly, once one of their drivers fell out of mathematical contention for the title, they concentrated their efforts on the other.
It was Felipe Massa who fell out of the running for the title with two races to go. And so at Interlagos Ferrari neatly moved him aside via the pit stops to let Kimi Raikkonen through to take the victory he needed to seal the championship.
McLaren were not able to do the same as both their drivers were in the running for the title until the final race. So having one driver not scoring as many points as the other played into Ferrari’s hands.
But so far this year Raikkonen and Massa are only three points apart. It’s not likely that one driver is going to fall very far behind the other any time soon.
Like Ferrari, McLaren could find themselves in the opposite situtation to where they were last year in the final races of 2008.
Heikki Kovalainen is already 24 points behind Lewis Hamilton, so the point at which he is mathemtically no longer able to win the championship is likely to come sooner.
McLaren have already shown this year that although they operate a policy of equality it is executed with a degree of realism. Kovalainen won praise from the team for not holding up Hamilton in the late stages of the race at Hockenheim when his team mate was visibly quicker than him.
Once one of their drivers falls out of the running for the title – which is most likely to be Kovalainen – expect him to fall into the number two role just like Massa had to last year.
BMW’s situation is rather different because, although they’ve made another clear step forward in form this year, they still don’t have the pace of the other two teams to be clear championship contenders.
Although they operate a policy of equality they, like McLaren, swapped their drivers’ positions at one race this year. At Montreal Robert Kubica was on a different strategy to Nick Heidfeld following a safety car intervention, and Heidfeld made no attempt to keep Kubica behind. As a reuslt, Kubica was able to build up the lead he needed over Heidfeld and won the race.
If BMW were closer to the sharp end every weekend then a policy of supporting Kubica over Heidfeld (as Kubica is ahead in the drivers’ championship) could net him a few useful extra points in this very closesly-fought championship.
But they’ve fallen down the order since the high of Montreal and favouring one driver over another at this stage would surely only breed unnecesary resentment.
On the other hand…
I can’t deny that my feelings on this matter are rather clouded by the fact that I just plain don’t like team orders.
Watching the dreary, Schumacher-dominated seasons of 2000-4 where Rubens Barrichello wasn’t allowed to finish in front of him until after the inevitable title was won, gave me a new respect for the kind of driver policies McLaren practised in 1988 and 1989. i.e., Hire the best two drivers in the world and let them race each other.
The likes of Peter Windsor would no doubt argue that Schumacher demonstrated the best way to run a team which everyone else should copy: install the best driver as number one and have a second-rate number two surrender every precious point to him.
It’s a logical argument. But I think part of the difference between collecting titles and achieving true greatness lies in beating your toughest rival when he’s driving the same car as you.
I am rather glad that Ferrari, McLaren and BMW are letting their drivers fight each other – at least until one of their drivers drops out of the running. Because of that I am confident that at the end of the year, whoever wins, we will know we have a worthy champion.