Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff says he opted to be the bad guy in the Russian Grand Prix after imposing team orders, rather than look like an “idiot” at the end of the season.
Valtteri Bottas took pole position and led the first part of the race, but Lewis Hamilton overtook Sebastian Vettel after the pit stops and was running a close second to his teammate when Mercedes ordered its drivers to swap positions. Hamilton later said it was a team decision that he had not asked for, and Wolff took responsibility amid criticism from some quarters over the switch.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes, and it’s me today,” Wolff said. “You need to weigh it up. What do I opt for, to be the baddie on Sunday evening, or do I want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season? I’d rather be the baddie today than the idiot at the end of the year.”
Running second, Bottas asked whether the positions would remain the same in the closing stages and was told they would, with Wolff and chief strategist James Vowles apologizing to the Finn for the order. Wolff pinpointed the need for Hamilton to overtake Vettel on track as central to the situation that led to switching positions, and took further blame for Hamilton losing out in the first place.
“The race panned out differently to what we expected and what we discussed this morning. We spent a lot of time discussing the various scenarios. The one that actually happened was slipstreaming each other, without that [Bottas could have won] but then [Hamilton] got tangled up in a way we called the pit stops.
“We did the right thing in calling Valtteri in at first to protect his position but we were one lap too late with Lewis. I take it on me because I was engaging with James [Vowles] in a conversation when he should have made the call.
“This is when he came in a lap too late and lost position, and Lewis had to fight hard to overtake Sebastian which was really an awesome move but blistered the tires and then we were in a situation that Valtteri in front managed the tires, Lewis behind with the blistered rear and Sebastian was all over Lewis, and at that stage there was two possible outcomes.
“The best case would have been it stays like it is and we finished second with Lewis and the win with Valtteri but the worst case was that blister wouldn’t last until the end and Lewis could be overtaken by Sebastian in order to manage his tires. Rationally, it was the right call to do… Our sporting heart says no.”