And so it was that the final race of the F1 Calendar 2016 brought into sharp focus the controversy between Lewis Hamilton, three times world champion, and his employers Mercedes Benz as a result of the driver refusing to obey instructions to increase his speed during the race.
At first blush, it seems perverse that a racing driver needs to be told to drive faster during a race as adopting a purposive approach, the job is to drive as fast as you can with the aim of winning races.
In this particular case however, Hamilton was already winning the race and there appeared little risk that the result was in jeopardy. The issue was around the coveted world championship title as F1 aficionados will be only too well aware. Hamilton, being some nine points behind his team mate and only rival for the championship Nico Rosberg, could only win the world championship if his rival did not finish in at least third place.
Disciplining Hamilton for driving as he did in Abu Dhabi is akin to disciplining him for trying to win the world championship which seems perverse.
Employees who wilfully disobey the lawful and reasonable instructions of their employers leave themselves open to the risk of disciplinary action, which can include dismissal. Even without the benefit of actually seeing Hamilton’s contract of employment it is a safe bet that it will include provisions about the driver agreeing that he will obey team principal instructions and will possibly define the sanctions for failing to do so. Even in the absence of those written provisions, the law will imply a term into the contract that an employee will carry out all lawful and reasonable instructions of an employer. The interpretation of those three words is key to the extent to which Mercedes can discipline Hamilton for what was a clear defiance of express instructions.
Firstly, the instructions must be lawful, this can be interpreted to mean contractually sound as it goes without saying that illegal instructions do not have to be obeyed. In addition, the instruction must also be reasonable. This is where Hamilton may have some wriggle room. If he simply drove as fast as he could without any tactical or strategic application, he would no doubt win the race as he in fact did, but would certainly have lost any chance of achieving a fourth world championship title; a fact that would have been known to his team bosses.
Taking everything in the round, a view that tactical and strategic application is a team effort would not be unsound, but in reaching that view it must also be the case that the team outside of the car provides advisory information to the driver who then interprets and acts upon it. This margin of discretion afforded to the driver would logically cast doubt on whether an instruction to speed up would in the specific circumstances of this case be reasonable. This was certainly echoed by Hamilton’s pained utterance on receiving the instruction “Why can’t you just let us race?”
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This update is for general guidance only and does not constitute definitive legal advice.