MERCEDES’ MORAL DILEMMA

They played the team game per­fectly in Hun­gary, but what price will Merc pay for do­ing the right thing?

F1 Racing - - RACE DEBRIEF HUNGARIAN GP -

Kimi Räikkö­nen could have won the Hun­gar­ian Grand Prix, but Fer­rari ul­ti­mately didn’t al­low that to hap­pen, leav­ing him to act as a frus­trated hu­man shield for a car-trou­bled Se­bas­tian Vet­tel.

Sim­i­larly, Mercedes could have al­lowed Lewis Hamil­ton to hold onto his third place, hav­ing pre­vailed upon his team-mate Valt­teri Bot­tas to give that po­si­tion up to al­low Hamil­ton an op­por­tu­nity to at­tack the vul­ner­a­ble Fer­raris. That they didn’t was per­haps laud­able from a moral point of view, but it made for an in­cred­i­bly tense fi­nal few laps of the race as Mercedes team prin­ci­pal Toto Wolff weighed up the pros and cons of ‘do­ing the right thing’ and swap­ping them back again – while Red Bull’s Max Verstappen closed in rapidly on them from be­hind. QUAL­I­FY­ING Hun­gary’s com­bi­na­tion of high-ish am­bi­ent tem­per­a­tures and a com­pact, smooth-sur­faced track lay­out with a pre­pon­der­ance of slow and medium-speed cor­ners was never ex­pected to favour the long-wheel­base Mercedes W08s.

Third and fourth in qual­i­fy­ing for Bot­tas and Hamil­ton, be­hind Vet­tel and Räikkö­nen, was prob­a­bly the best Mercedes could have ex­pected af­ter Daniel Ric­cia­rdo was fastest for Red Bull in both Fri­day prac­tice ses­sions and Vet­tel led a Fer­rari one-two on Satur­day morn­ing. Still, Merc team boss Toto Wolff in­sisted Hamil­ton would have been “in the fight for pole po­si­tion” if he hadn’t run wide at Turn 4 and been forced to abort his first run in Q3.

Qual­i­fy­ing also proved dis­ap­point­ing for the Red Bulls on one of the most en­gine-neu­tral cir­cuits on the calendar. De­spite an­other batch of chas­sis up­grades, and that siz­zling prac­tice pace, Ric­cia­rdo could do no bet­ter than sixth, with Verstappen P5.

RACE The tight na­ture of the Hun­garor­ing means over­tak­ing is al­most im­pos­si­ble here and a good start is vi­tal – so in­ci­dents are vir­tu­ally guar­an­teed at Turn 1. Vet­tel and Räikkö­nen got away cleanly but then a brawl erupted be­hind: Hamil­ton tucked in be­hind Bot­tas and got boxed in as Verstappen plot­ted a suc­cess­ful course around the out­side, and Ric­cia­rdo found a gap on the in­side.

Hamil­ton lost two places, but gained one back when Verstappen took out Ric­cia­rdo at Turn 2, a clumsy shunt that would earn Max a 10s penalty. Af­ter four laps be­hind the Safety Car, Hamil­ton had a look at the in­side at Turn 1 on the restart but de­clared it “wasn’t worth the risk”.

The first sug­ges­tions of Fer­rari’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity came when Vet­tel re­ported that his steer­ing had be­come off­set to the left, and that the prob­lem was get­ting worse. A mes­sage from the pit­wall ad­vised him to avoid heavy kerb im­pacts – not the fastest way around this cir­cuit. Im­me­di­ately be­hind, Räikkö­nen be­gan to protest that he was be­ing held up. Fer­rari were in a quandary: should they let Vet­tel re­tain the lead, and leave both their cars open to an as­sault by Mercedes, or should they or­der them to swap places and al­low Räikkö­nen to go clear, pre­serv­ing a Fer­rari vic­tory but putting Vet­tel at greater risk? As the laps ticked by, no word came de­spite Räikkö­nen’s pal­pa­ble ag­i­ta­tion.

Mercedes might have been bet­ter placed to take ad­van­tage of Fer­rari’s vul­ner­a­bil­ity had they not been stymied by tech­ni­cal is­sues of their own. A cracked fi­bre-op­tic ca­ble was dis­rupt­ing their com­mu­ni­ca­tions, in­clud­ing the team ra­dio, so Hamil­ton and Bot­tas had but in­ter­mit­tent con­tact with the pit­wall in the open­ing phase of the race.

Bot­tas was the first of the lead­ing group to pit, on lap 30, fol­lowed by Hamil­ton, Vet­tel and Räikkö­nen on sub­se­quent laps. Räikkö­nen flew when Vet­tel pit­ted out of the way, and had he been

TEMPTED THOUGH MERCEDES WERE TO LEAVE HAMIL­TON IN THIRD AND BANK MORE POINTS, THEY SWAPPED HIM WITH BOT­TAS AT THE FI­NAL COR­NER

left out longer he might have un­der­cut his team­mate and emerged in the lead, but it was not to be, and he de­parted on Vet­tel’s tail. “I had the speed to stay out,” he fumed over the ra­dio.

Serv­ing his ten-sec­ond penalty would put Verstappen out be­hind Hamil­ton, so Red Bull kept him out un­til lap 42 to give him fresher tyres in the fi­nal phase. With the ra­dio re­stored, Hamil­ton in­di­cated he was faster than his team-mate and could chal­lenge the Fer­raris if Bot­tas gave way: “If I can’t catch and pass them I’ll let him back past.”

On lap 45 the Mercedes swapped places at Turn 1 and Hamil­ton made in­roads into the Fer­raris’ lead­ing mar­gin, helped by per­mis­sion from the pit­wall to en­gage a more po­tent en­gine mode for a five-lap push. Räikkö­nen be­gan to feel the pres­sure as Hamil­ton got within DRS dis­tance, forc­ing him to run closer to Vet­tel.

But Vet­tel lifted his pace, and when Hamil­ton ran wide at Turn 5 on lap 58 and fell out of DRS range, the bat­tle was over. Now it was the Mercedes crew’s turn to sweat, since Verstappen was clos­ing in on Bot­tas. Tempted though they were to leave Hamil­ton in third and bank more points, they swapped at the fi­nal cor­ner.

The re­sult leaves Vet­tel on 202 points and Hamil­ton on 188. Had Mercedes let Lewis fin­ish third, the stand­ings would have been 202-191. A small dif­fer­ence, but one that may take on greater im­port come Abu Dhabi.

If it does, Wolff ad­mit­ted: “I’ll be the first per­son to shoot my­self in the knee…”

On the fi­nal cor­ner, Hamil­ton sport­ingly hands back the po­si­tion Bot­tas had re­lin­quished to him

Ric­cia­rdo is knocked out on the first lap af­ter a clumsy move by team-mate Verstappen at Turn 2

Seb Vet­tel is af­fected by var­i­ous han­dling is­sues, and team-mate Räikkö­nen holds sta­tion astern

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