There’s a reason racing fans are called racing fans. It’s because we all want to see good, hard racing as often as possible. Nobody wants to see drivers moving out of the way and not putting up a fight.
Two weeks ago at the Singapore Grand Prix the topic of blue flags was raised after Lewis Hamilton got held up by a battle between Romain Grosjean and Sergey Sirotkin, who were expected to stop racing to jump out of the way of the leader. What followed was a debate about whether Formula 1 should stick to blue flags, change the rule, or scrap it altogether and force drivers to fight their way through.
The reaction of most drivers was to stick with the regulation but maybe tweak the time gap before a blue flag is shown at certain tracks to allow for how hard it usually is to follow another car.
One race later, we’ve got a different point of contention after Mercedes told Valtteri Bottas to let Hamilton through in Russia: Team orders.
Let’s just start with the obvious point. Team orders are legal. Regardless of your view about whether they should be, the fact that they are means that a team would be stupid not to use them if they feel they could gain a competitive advantage.
Teams exist to win. They’re racing fans as much as anyone else, but once the lights go out, their sole focus is on getting the best possible result.
Given the choice, any team would take a dominant one-two in a race devoid of any action over finishing third and fourth in a thriller, because domination means they’ve done the best job.
Mercedes secured a one-two in Sochi, only the third time it has done so this season. No other team has managed to match that result in 2018. The order was championship leader Hamilton in P1 and teammate Bottas in P2. On paper, it’s job done.
But with Bottas having started from pole and led Hamilton on track for the first half of the race, the manufactured finishing order has not gone down well in some quarters.
It was an obvious decision to make – and the right one, when you consider the rules and what Mercedes is ultimately fighting for. To have not done so would have been ridiculous.
There’s a reason I brought up blue flags. The amount of downforce in the current era makes it extremely difficult for drivers to stay close to the car in front, and in trying to do so they overwork their tires because their own aerodynamics are working less effectively.
That meant that on Sunday, Max Verstappen was able to lap quickly enough to retain the lead on old tires, aided by the fact that he was in clear air and able to look after his rubber. That’s also why Bottas sat a little further back from Verstappen, and in part why Hamilton was vulnerable to Vettel despite having overtaken him on track once already. Verstappen’s pace was limiting the ability of the Mercedes to pull away.
That Hamilton pass on Vettel had taken more out of Hamilton’s Pirellis than either he or Mercedes had wanted, and the team later claimed that a small blister had opened up as a consequence of overheated the rear tires.
After locking out the front row, Mercedes, mindful of its tight constructors’ championship battle with Ferrari, wanted a one-two result. It did not want to risk losing a position to Vettel with either car.
At the same time, Hamilton is the only Mercedes driver in the drivers’ championship fight, and was deemed the more vulnerable of the two cars given the way he’d had to push early in his stint to pass Vettel.
It could be argued that Mercedes simply made the decision it felt best benefited the overall team result, regardless of the drivers’ championship picture. But it’s clear that Hamilton’s title fight with Vettel was also part of Toto Wolff’s thinking when he asked Bottas to relinquish the lead.
I was surprised at some of the anger at the call, and even more by the suggestions that Mercedes was spared the firestorm that Ferrari attracted for the same thing. The order for Rubens Barrichello to make way for Michael Schumacher at the 2002 Austrian GP was ridiculous, given the early stage of the season and how dominant Schumacher’s points lead – more than two victories clear after five races – already was. Plus, that switch on the final lap was simply made to benefit Schumacher when he had no threat from behind in the race.
Germany 2010 is another example that springs to mind. That Felipe Massa was leading the race a year to the day since suffering a life-threatening injury in Hungary could have been reason enough for Ferrari to see the bigger picture and not order Fernando Alonso through, but the final championship battle ultimately proved it was a necessary move in terms of maximizing the Spaniard’s chances of success. The problem was, back then team orders were illegal.
Today that’s no longer the case, and in Sochi, Vettel was a direct threat to Hamilton. Moving Hamilton ahead of Bottas would leave the Briton in clear air once Verstappen pitted from the lead, and therefore better able to manage his tires. Bottas would suffer somewhat, but his tires were better-equipped to withstand pressure from Vettel. It secured the one-two.
Was it harsh on Bottas? Of course: he performed excellently all weekend. But he’d left himself vulnerable to such a situation by not producing those performances on a consistent basis throughout the season. In the previous 15 races, Hamilton had delivered the results that made him Mercedes’ only realistic hope of the drivers’ title.
To those arguing that Hamilton already has a significant lead in the drivers’ standings: it was 40 points at the start of yesterday’s race. Had Mercedes not issued the team order, and Vettel had gotten back ahead of Hamilton, the gap would have been 37 points. We’ve already seen Mercedes reliability issues this season – a double-DNF in Austria standing out – while the next venue, Suzuka, is a track where tiny first-lap contact before Turn 1 took Alonso out of the race in 2012, and hugely hurting his title hopes.
A Vettel win, a Hamilton retirement, and all of a sudden that 37-point gap would be down to 12.
Should have, would have, could have. Of course those scenarios are hypothetical, but Mercedes’ aim right now is to secure a drivers’ and constructors’ championship double. It has to focus on whatever it needs to do to achieve that aim, and not be left looking back at what it could have done.
Essentially, it’s game management. It’s no different to running down the clock late in the fourth quarter instead of risking an interception by chasing an extra touchdown that everyone wants to see, but that you don’t need.
If we were leaving Japan with a 12-point gap because Mercedes opted not to issue the team order in Russia in order to let Bottas try and win his first race of the year, there would be no argument that Mercedes had done the wrong thing. And the simple fact that at worst, Hamilton will leave Suzuka with a 25-point advantage confirms that the team made the correct call.
That doesn’t mean you have to like it. But you have to acknowledge it was the right decision for a team chasing both titles. When the main rival is the one who most vocally defends the move, that tells you all you need to know.
“Controversy for whatever reason is more attractive than happy news and smiley faces, but I don’t think it’s fair now asking them tough questions,” Vettel said. “I think what they did and the way they played together as a team makes complete sense.
“Obviously it’s a bit dull for the race, but it makes sense. For the team obviously it doesn’t make a difference who wins, but for the drivers’ championship it does, so I think everybody understands what they did.”