Team Orders: Is Motorcycle Racing A Team Sport?

In a few hours time, we will know who will be the 2014 World Superbike champion. Tom Sykes leads Sylvain Guintoli by 12 points going into the final two races at Qatar. With 50 points up for grabs, the title race is still completely open, and in a series as close as World Superbikes has been this year, anything could happen.

What both Sykes and Guintoli need are help from their teammates. Guintoli most of all: if the Frenchman is to be champion, he will need someone, such as his Aprilia teammate Marco Melandri, to get in between him and the Kawasaki of Sykes. Sykes, on the other hand, can wrap up the title by winning both races, or at least finishing ahead of Guintoli. If he can't finish ahead of the Frenchman, then he will hope that his teammate Loris Baz can assist.

As loyal teammates, surely Melandri and Baz will be happy to help? That was only partially the case at the last round in Magny-Cours. In race one, Melandri theatrically waved Guintoli past and into the lead, making it patently obvious that victory was Melandri's to dispense as he saw fit, and he was prepared to allow his teammate to win this time. Further back, Baz did the same same for Sykes, though without making quite as much of a song and dance about it as Melandri did.

Race two was a different affair. Once again, Melandri led, and could grant victory to Guintoli if he wanted to. He chose not to, taking the win – despite his pit board making the feelings of his team very clear indeed, for the second race in a row – and taking 5 precious points from Guintoli. If Melandri had obeyed team orders and moved over, then Guintoli would have trailed Sykes by 7 points instead of 12. That would put Guintoli's destiny in his own hands: win both races, and it would not matter what Sykes did. Now, Guintoli needs help, he needs someone between him and the Englishman. Will his teammate come to his rescue this time? Will the Aprilia WSBK team issue team orders again, commanding Melandri to serve the cause of Guintoli's championship challenge?

At the core of this is a much bigger question: Is motorcycle racing a team sport?

The answer to that is not as obvious as it may seem. Clearly, motorcycle racers do not succeed on their own, they have a large group of people supporting and helping them. Without a crew chief to find the right set up, mechanics to ensure the bike is running smoothly and well, team managers to find the money to pay for the whole show, a rider would be nowhere. Getting the rider onto the grid and ready to try to win the race is plainly a team effort.

On track, a rider is usually joined by a teammate, wearing the same colors and racing under the same banner. The two will be expected to work together in some areas, sharing information to help develop a bike and optimize both riders' set ups, appearing together at PR events to help promote the team and the interests of the sponsors.

Once the lights go out, however, it is every rider for themselves. Racers do not work together like a soccer team, or a basketball team, to outplay their rivals. Racers do not work together like a cycling team, a group riding together to keep their leader out of the wind, so that they arrive at the line with energy to spare. Motorcycle racers ride as fast as possible to try to finish ahead of everyone else, be they rivals or teammates.

There are only two instances in which one teammate can help another. The first is by doing what Melandri did at Magny-Cours in race one, moving aside to allow their teammate to pass. The second, slightly less common, is by doing what Dani Pedrosa tried to do at Valencia in 2006, what Valentino Rossi tried to do in Valencia 2013, what Danny Kent did at Sepang this year. They can try to mix it up with their teammates' rivals, doing their utmost to race them hard, get in their way and hold them up, in the hope that their teammate can get away and out of reach.

But both of these are measures taken only in extremis. When all else fails, teams will prevail upon a teammate to help the rider with the best chance of a result. It is a request only made if that rider does not have total control of a championship. It is, if you will, a last resort, a desperate measure.

It also goes against the grain for a motorcycle racer, and perhaps against the very ethos of the sport. When a team signs a rider, the only discussion there is about teammates is usually only to ensure that the rider being signed feels certain of beating them. Rider contracts are full of performance clauses, and clauses about results, but what a rider's duty is towards the other rider in the team is never specified. Usually, the only order a team manager will give to their riders is "don't knock each other off."

Sometimes, though, a team will have something at stake which transcends the interests of the individual riders. One rider may have a shot at a title, and the other may be in a position to help. The manager may make the team's position clear to the riders, and hope that they will submit their own ambition to the interests of the team.

More often than not, riders are entirely unwilling to listen. From the perspective of a motorcycle racer, the sport is an entirely individual pursuit. All weekend long, a group of engineers have spent their time focused on just a single thing: preparing the bike as perfectly as they can, and making it as competitive as it can be. They have spent their time working for the rider, putting their fate in the rider's hands. From the moment the team leaves the grid, the riders are on their own, all of that work focused on this one point in time. There is just the rider, their bike, the track, and the enemy, the rest of the grid. Nothing else matters. This is the moment a motorcycle racer lives for: to ride fast, and beat the rest.

There is something egocentric about all elite athletes – there has to be, or they are simply unable to make the sacrifices necessary to get to the top – but that egocentricity finds different outlets in different sports. In a sport such as soccer or basketball, the individuals work together, sometimes sacrificing personal glory to serve the greater ambition of winning as a team. In an individual sport such as the long jump, the athlete works entirely alone, focused solely on their own performance, nothing more.

The attitude of motorcycle racers is much closer to that of long jumpers than it is to basketball players. Once they close their helmet, and leave their mechanics behind, they are alone, just them and the bike, and an army of rivals to defeat. The team a rider races for may have a lot of prestige and money riding on the performance of the other rider in the team. A rider may even be in a position to help that teammate. But when the chips are down, a motorcycle racer only really cares about one thing: their own success.

The paradox of motorcycle racing is that there is an "I" in team. The "I" is in "RIDER".

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Riders are still paid employees. A team winning a championship potentially has a better chance of making more money through attracting more sponsors. So if a rider is told to let their team mate through, imo, it's not much different than my boss letting a coworker doing something I felt I deserved and worked hard for. The rider's job is to make the team better, first.

Say Melandri is does not help his team mate against team orders, he's not going to pay his boss the revenue they may have gotten. It does not hurt his standing because everyone already knows who Marco is.

Riders have contracts with personal sponsors and with their teams, and sometimes their income depends a lot more on their sponsors than their teams. Sponsors like victories. Sponsors give bonuses for victories.

So, which boss do you listen to most? 

In no way is "The rider's job is to make the team better, first." The rider's job is to beat everyone he can, including (and most especially!!) his "teammate".
As David alludes to, a motorcycle team is nothing at all like a basketball or soccer team, where everyone is pulling for a common goal. Racing "teammates" are nothing like that, they are competitors who happen to share some support resources.

Personally I have no quarrel with motorcycle racing turning into a team sport at this stage of the season. Egomania is never an attractive quality, and a rider sabotaging the efforts of his team for personal glory isn't a pretty sight. The employers pay the bills, and they have a right to expect their employees not to hinder their chances of success after an expensive campaign.
If it plays out that the spectator loses the opportunity to see another chapter of the Cadalora-Bradl narrative on the final bend, I won't feel cheated. These guys have already put in a hard season's racing.
Good luck to both Guintoli and Sykes. Both have a lot of skill and seem like decent fellows.

I had just this debate with a riding buddy. I can see botht sides, BUT.....if I'm writing the checks/paying the bills, I have the final say. Its a business & $$$$ makes it works, especially at this time of the season. I totally understand how the riders feel, being told to 'move over & let your teamate by', but put the ego aside.....

I look at any form of motor racing as an individual sport for the first, say, 3/4ths of the season; slowly evolving into a team sport in the final quarter as the team attempts to come up with the best standing possible by the end.

As most motorsports have both an individual championship and a team (or constructor's) championship, its up to team management to decide what is possible towards the end of the season, how they're going to go for it, and what the riders have to do to accomplish said aims. At which point, marching order are given and should be followed.

Yeah, I'll hear the whine of "but that hurts the racing for the spectators". The teams are out there to win championships first, please the spectators second. Besides, this controlled form of racing only rears its head for the final couple of races. Up until that point, everybody is pulling out all the stops to get in as good as position as possible for the end.

I've especially got problems with a racer who doesn't have a hope of the championship (mathematically out of the running) sandbagging his teammate who's one of the finalists for the top step. Yes, the individual is important, but the team signs the paycheck.

And yeah, I've had this very strong attitude for eight years now . . . . . . . .

I can see both sides of the coin. Team bosses want to secure a championship. Riders want to secure good results.
Everyone is a CEO of Themselves Inc. IN the end you have to do whats best for you and ONLY YOU can make that decision. I've never seen a rider credited with being on a championship winning team when they weren't the ones winning the championship. You would be hard pressed to walk into your negotions with Bell or Shoei or Alpinestars and say "Yeah I helped such and such secure the 2014 title. I'm a real team player." They want to see how many wins/podiums you'll produce to pimp their product.
Conversely negotiating a contract with a team that already has a #1 rider, your willingness to acquiesce might come under question.
I partook in both team and individual sport growing up, and flourished in an individual sport (swimming). The mentalities are different, and knowing how you need to be wired racing motorcycles, the fact that anyone pulls over for their teammate to come by baffles me. That is unless there is a bag of money the team owner is handing you to do so...

I'm suprised someone of Melandri's experience couldn't see or didn't care about the bigger picture. He's well out of the championship battle, but he's still considered one of the elite in WSB so 1 win less is neither here nor there, he would still have been at the top of every team's shopping list....if they could afford him.

Another theatrical wave through wouldn't have diminished his standing in the slightest, and he could legitimately claim to be a part of the winning TEAM.

Instead he has conciously chosen to make it that much harder for the strange group of people who seem to stalk him in the garage every race meeting and by some weird twist of fate wear matching clothes every single time....what are the odds of such a thing? As he has no connection to these strangers/stalkers it obviously hasn't clicked that he may have cost them the ultimate prize.

Hmmmmm, I don't know how you say "Plonker!" in Italian....but I bet that strange group of people in the funny matchy matchy outfits do.....

Yes - that's the way I see it too - extremely short-sighted of him. Those strangers in his garage are responsible for prepping his ride, and with a lot of hard work this season, they managed to fashion the RSV4 into a weapon that suited his style. Presumably they have some loyalty to the marque, and would take pride in a Guintoli victory. I can understand why we saw the angry face on his pit-board.
I enjoy watching MM33 race, but this kind of behavior makes him look like a narcissistic little prick on the podium.

There are more than two teams contesting each match. So first they would need to individually place themselves in a position to be helpful against an entire field of competitors.

The only way to ensure as a rider to be in that helpful position is to take the approach that it means beating everyone else first, including your teammate.

Not that it matters but the mention in article of other ways a teammate can help.... there are some differences in a teammate fighting with competition and crashing into them taking them out of the race altogether.

If your going to include both, then in context of WSBK, don't forget Bruno 2009 when Fabrizio took out Ben Spies which was part of the set up for it going down to final round and race for the championship.

Grandpa, how did you win your championship?

I was going as fast as I could but it just wasn't working, my team-mate pulled over and let me by to win it all. I'm so proud.

that that will not be necessary as Guinters won even if the team orders had been ignored the one time that MM decided to listen to them.

I think what we need to understand about motorcycle racing being a team sport has been pointed out by David in his article. Team can be a rider, his crew chief, his mechanics etc. He can't do too much without that team working for him. The difficulty is if both the riders and their teams can be considered as a meta team or a bigger overarching team and this where difficulties start of present themselves. Michael Schumacher's tenure at Ferrari was most interesting as a case. Schumacher introduced the constant usage of the word "we" while referring to what "he" did in a race. He reinforced this by sharing the champagne battle with this "team" of mechanics etc. The meta team was taken care of by either Jean Todt or Luca de Montezemolo or Ross Brawn where Eddie Irvine and Rubens Barichello were told at the time of the signing of the contract itself that they were number 2 and not expected to win races even if they could. Kimi Raikonnen was the true individualist. He didn't bother to speak much and the few utterances that were forced out of him turned out to be difficult to comprehend mutterings. No spraying of champagne, no giving it to the mechanics, it was just him.

In motorcycle racing too you find that some riders talk we while others do not. Valentino Rossi falls in the latter category. I have never seen in MotoGP, riders explicitly being told by the meta team that one had to give way to the other in a very obvious manner. But it is something that happened in WSBK. I still remember Scot Russell being waved ahead by a very, very displeased Aaron Slight. Apparently the Muzzy Kawasaki team was particular that Russell be allowed to win the race since that was the one time when Kawasaki was in a position to win the world championship. And the next year both Honda and Yamaha were to come in as factory teams. Rob Muzzy was apparently told that the world championship should be won by Russell even if it displeased Slight. I think it made sense at that time for Kawasaki to do what it was doing because that was their maiden chance for becoming World champions. However, what happened with Marco Melandri and Loris Baz is different. Aprilia have been world champions several times. Kawasaki became world champions last year only for the rider and not as constructors. So they want that this year I think and so they played that game.

I guess team orders has a place if you look at this as a rider being backed by the factory so that it (the factory) can win the championship and late in the championship when one rider is in no position to win and the other is, it is not illogical for the factory teams to exercise team orders. After all they are pouring rivers of money into racing and have to have something to show to the share holders and management of the factories. However, to go back to Michael Schumacher, the Ferrari team had said that even if Schumacher was ahead by a few hundred points still nobody could win other than him in a Ferrari. Now that is nonsense.

a team sport not a team mate sport.

Melandri was right. If I was capable of riding in a World Championship at the highest level there is no way I'd just let my team mate by, if he "wants it" he needs to win it for himself by riding better / faster.

This sport is becoming too sanitised and nice at the moment - e.g. people moaning that Miller shouldn't ride hard against Marquez last week.

"this is a motorcycle race not a picnic"

My last post was long. I will keep this short. I had said there are two teams, one: the rider, his crew chief and the mechanics and two: the meta team which is the factory's team involving all. Loris Baz after being told to cede his 2nd place to Tom Sykes in the first race at Losail, simply refused to heed. One of the reasons he gave was that he could not let down his "team of mechanics" by giving them a third place instead of a second. So it seems that motorcycle racing is indeed a team sport that is not really a team sport.

Is motorcycle racing a team sport? Is a rider obliged to give up a place to help his teammate if asked? Here's one way to decide the issue in the future: Put it in the contract. If a team wants a rider to give up a place when asked they should man up and put it in writing when they hire the guy. And not in some lawyer's weasel words. Spell out "rider will give up places in order to assist teammate if requested" unequivocally. Otherwise, suck it up and accept that human emotions in the heat of battle will play a part with results you might not like.

I would not hire any rider that would sign a contract with that included. You either give it everything you can and go for the best finish position possible or park it.

They are not going to be worth a penny, if the rider is sat at home without a bike.

Had Sykes won the championship on Sunday, I'd have thought everyone in the whole team would have received a bonus. Claiming that he was rewarding his side of the garage will have cost his backup crew money.

Will Baz be trusted in future? Unlikely. He might be good, but not that good.