Rus­sian GP re­port and anal­y­sis

Team orders may of­ten be nec­es­sary in rac­ing, but for the pub­lic – and even some of the pro­tag­o­nists – they are never any­thing but ugly

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - EDD STRAW

WOULD YOU HAVE DONE IT? THIS WAS THE QUES­TION MERCEDES MO­TOR­SPORT CHIEF TOTO Wolff asked his many in­ter­roga­tors af­ter his de­ci­sion to im­pose team orders handed Lewis Hamil­ton Rus­sian Grand Prix vic­tory over right­ful win­ner Valt­teri Bot­tas.

This is the key ques­tion – the only ques­tion that mat­ters in un­der­stand­ing what hap­pened in Sochi last week­end, and one that has a dif­fer­ent an­swer de­pend­ing on whether you ap­proach it in a cool, cal­cu­lat­ing, ra­tio­nal man­ner or an emo­tional one. Wolff’s two ex­plicit de­ci­sions – firstly for Bot­tas to be or­dered to let Hamil­ton into the de facto race lead, se­condly not to re­verse their po­si­tions in the clos­ing laps once the threat to the Mercedes’ supremacy had been de­fused – were ex­actly what you’d ex­pect from a ruth­less, world cham­pi­onship-win­ning ma­chine. Wolff’s de­ci­sion to “be the bad­die”, as he put it, was the re­sult of the un­easy bal­anc­ing act be­tween in­di­vid­ual and col­lec­tive suc­cess in grand prix rac­ing that has al­ways ex­isted. No­body, in­clud­ing Wolff and Hamil­ton, at­tempted to ar­gue this wasn’t Bot­tas’s race, but ev­ery­one in­volved – even Bot­tas – un­der­stood why this was more in­con­ve­nient ne­ces­sity than de­struc­tive act of anti-sports­man­ship. The orig­i­nal swap was driven by the ne­ces­sity of the race sit­u­a­tion, but some would ar­gue that the sport­ing thing to do would have been to swap them back, par­tic­u­larly once Se­bas­tian Vet­tel had lost a lit­tle time lap­ping Ro­main Gros­jean’s Haas and Bot­tas had some breath­ing space. But un­like the 2017 Hun­gar­ian Grand Prix, where Hamil­ton waved Bot­tas by late on for third hav­ing ear­lier been or­dered ahead, Wolff de­cided to bank the ex­tra points for Hamil­ton. “I thought about it the whole hour, in the same way I thought about it in Bu­dapest,” said Wolff of how se­ri­ously he con­sid­ered switch­ing them back. “in Bu­dapest, we said if he can’t make it past [Kimi] Raikko­nen then we’re go­ing to swap back. But that was mid-sea­son, here we are in Sochi at the end of the sea­son. “You need to con­sider the cham­pi­onship. If at the end five points or three points are miss­ing, then you’re the big­gest id­iot on the planet for hav­ing pri­ori­tised Valt­teri’s sin­gle race re­sult over the cham­pi­onship.”

You may not like it, and the man him­self was clearly un­com­fort­able with what he’d had to do, but it’s hard to ar­gue with Wolff’s logic. Some­times the ra­tio­nal de­ci­sion goes against the heart. Hamil­ton’s cham­pi­onship lead is now up to 50 points, rather than the 43 it would have been with­out the or­der. Since Mercedes has made big per­for­mance strides since strug­gling in the Bel­gian GP three races ear­lier, and im­proved dra­mat­i­cally in terms of corner exit trac­tion from slower turns thanks to a con­flu­ence of me­chan­i­cal tweaks, Hamil­ton now holds all the aces. And when it came to the Rus­sian GP it was log­i­cal, if gen­uinely painful, for Mercedes to sac­ri­fice Bot­tas even if it didn’t go into the race in­tend­ing to do so. You can ar­gue that the only mis­take was not to make the de­ci­sion that Hamil­ton would win be­fore the race and make it clear to Bot­tas, rather than de­cid­ing on the hoof af­ter be­ing backed into a corner by the cir­cum­stances of the race. That this be­came a grand prix of team-orders con­tro­versy was the con­se­quence of three in­ter-re­lated fac­tors. Early on, the race panned out as planned. Bot­tas held on to his pole po­si­tion with a good launch, while Hamil­ton came un­der at­tack from Vet­tel. The team had dis­cussed a strat­egy to neu­tralise the ad­van­tage con­ferred by a tow to a car be­hind and it worked beau­ti­fully, and Bot­tas stayed to the right of the track where Hamil­ton was, with his team-mate in the tow. Vet­tel, his Fer­rari fac­ing a wall of air, had no chance and had to set­tle into third place as the two Mercedes driv­ers fanned out on the ap­proach to the corner. “I had the best start out of those three, but couldn’t go any­where with­out a tow,” said Vet­tel. With Bot­tas lead­ing from Hamil­ton and Vet­tel, the three re­mained locked to­gether in the early stages. Hamil­ton’s deficit fluc­tu­ated be­tween 1.2 and 1.7 sec­onds, while Vet­tel was on av­er­age around two sec­onds be­hind. It was all a ques­tion of who would blink first and stop. So far, so straight­for­ward. But the first com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor emerged early in the race – Max Ver­stap­pen. He started 19th, one place be­hind team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, ow­ing to Red Bull’s de­ci­sion to in­tro­duce an­other pair of the B-spec Re­nault en­gines for use in Mex­ico and Brazil since the newer C-spec could be prob­lem­atic at al­ti­tude. The fron­trun­ners knew the Red Bulls could be­come a nui­sance, but it would de­pend on them scyth­ing through the field in the early stages. That’s ex­actly what Ver­stap­pen did, sig­nalling his in­tent by cat­a­pult­ing past both Ric­cia­rdo and Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly within mo­ments of the race start­ing thanks to a great get­away. He car­ried that mo­men­tum to 14th place out of Turn 2 by charg­ing up the out­side in the brak­ing zone, then picked off Lance Stroll on the back straight to run 13th.

A lap later, Ver­stap­pen passed the Re­naults of Nico Hulken­berg and Car­los Sainz Jr to climb to 11th, be­fore pass­ing Mar­cus Eric­s­son on lap three into the Turn 4 right-han­der to crack the top 10. Ro­main Gros­jean fol­lowed later that lap on the back straight, and Ver­stap­pen then dis­missed Ser­gio Perez, Este­ban Ocon and Kevin Mag­nussen on the three fol­low­ing laps. It took him two laps, un­til the main straight on lap eight, for him to blast past‘class B’leader Charles Le­clerc’s Sauber for fifth. At that point he was 20s be­hind leader Bot­tas, mean­ing that the top four were all in the win­dow where they would fall be­hind Ver­stap­pen, run­ning long on softs while the top four had started on ul­tra­softs, when they pit­ted. Bot­tas tried to ex­tend the gap, but Ver­stap­pen was com­fort­ably able to main­tain it and even shaved off a few tenths. For­tu­nately there was only one Red Bull to con­tend with since Ric­cia­rdo was more than 14s back, hav­ing taken longer to come through the field af­ter pick­ing up


light front-wing dam­age on the open­ing lap that cost him down­force and left him fight­ing un­der­steer. Mercedes re­alised there was no chance of build­ing up enough of a lead over Ver­stap­pen and, when Bot­tas dived into the pits at the end of lap 12 to switch to soft Pirellis while 1.3s clear of Hamil­ton, he re­joined fifth and just over five sec­onds be­hind the Red Bull. This is the mo­ment of the race that sup­ports the claim Mercedes did not pre­or­dain the re­sult, be­cause it would have been so easy to give Hamil­ton the un­der­cut on Bot­tas and claim it had to be­cause of the threat of Vet­tel. Fer­rari re­sponded by telling Vet­tel, who was 1.8s be­hind Hamil­ton, to do the op­po­site to Hamil­ton in terms of pit­ting. Hamil­ton, sur­pris­ingly, stayed out while Vet­tel dived into the pits to take on softs. This Mercedes mis­take was the sec­ond com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor. Wolff took the blame for this since he was part of the chat­ter on the strat­egy ra­dio chan­nel about whether Hamil­ton should pit or try to eke out an­other lap – chat­ter that co­in­cided with the cham­pi­onship leader’s rears giv­ing up the ghost in the fi­nal sec­tor while he was on a quick lap. With the ex­tra lap to com­plete, and strug­gling for grip, Hamil­ton was then very vul­ner­a­ble to be­ing un­der­cut by Vet­tel, lead­ing to Bot­tas be­ing told“we’d like to re­duce lap times and back Vet­tel up”. Bot­tas wasn’t ex­pect­ing team orders of this na­ture, so re­alised some­thing was up. It was a tough break for him, but the in­struc­tion was is­sued out of ne­ces­sity given Hamil­ton was now in trou­ble. Hamil­ton did come in a lap later, but de­spite a rapid pit­stop he emerged side by side with Vet­tel. The Fer­rari had the mo­men­tum, and Hamil­ton wasn’t in a po­si­tion to con­test the corner at Turn 2.“How did that hap­pen?” asked Hamil­ton over the ra­dio. A good ques­tion. “We did the right thing by call­ing Valt­teri in first – it pro­tected his po­si­tion,” said Wolff.“but we were one lap too late with Lewis. I’ll take it on me, be­cause I was en­gag­ing James [Vowles, chief strate­gist] in a con­ver­sa­tion when he should have made the call. This is why he came in a lap too late and lost po­si­tion.” Wolff ad­mit­ted that this was a clear mis­take, and it was a strange one, but the dis­ad­van­tage was quickly elim­i­nated by Hamil­ton’s vir­tu­os­ity. He stayed with Vet­tel in the hope of repass­ing him, and had a run on him on the main straight on the next lap. With Hamil­ton clos­ing rapidly, Vet­tel moved right on the ap­proach to Turn 2 and forced the Mercedes to back out of it be­fore tak­ing the corner. Hamil­ton wasn’t happy and the stew­ards looked at the in­ci­dent, rul­ing it le­git­i­mate de­spite the two moves. It was un­der­stand­able that Hamil­ton was un­happy, but it was deemed to be on the line rather than over it. “Se­bas­tian moved and then moved again,” said Hamil­ton .“if I didn’t brake, I would have been in the wall and we would have crashed. It felt that it was a dou­ble move, which we of­ten talk about that we shouldn’t do. Luck­ily, I got away with it and I was quite force­ful in the next corner.” Vet­tel saw things dif­fer­ently: “i saw him com­ing very late. Ob­vi­ously, it’s dif­fi­cult to see in the mir­rors and I tried to move to make clear that I’m go­ing to the in­side. If you want to go some­where, go the other side. He had quite a bit more speed at that time, maybe he was sur­prised, but there was no in­ten­tion to ir­ri­tate him.” Hamil­ton got a good exit from Turn 2 and closed on Vet­tel through the fast left-han­der at Turn 3 be­fore div­ing to the right as they emerged from it to take the place up the in­side into the fol­low­ing right-han­der. “I had a com­pro­mised run out of the sec­ond corner,” said Vet­tel. “Then it was very dif­fi­cult to see where he was. I couldn’t see him for a very long time, then just saw his tyres and knew he was some­where there. I didn’t want to be a com­plete arse by push­ing him into the dirt and po­ten­tially into the wall, and at some point I had to give in.”

It was a cru­cial pass, but one that had con­se­quences in the form of a left-rear blis­ter that Hamil­ton picked up thanks to go­ing too hard, too soon on fresh rub­ber that is sus­cep­ti­ble to such prob­lems when car­ry­ing max­i­mum tread. This was the third com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor. Bot­tas, mean­while, was clos­ing on Ver­stap­pen and was told that pass­ing him was“for the win”. This was a clear sign that team orders were be­ing con­sid­ered, be­cause Ver­stap­pen was not a con­tender to beat him. The im­pli­ca­tion was: get ahead, or you will be cast be­hind. Sure enough, af­ter spend­ing five laps stuck be­hind Ver­stap­pen, with Hamil­ton right be­hind and still un­der pres­sure from Vet­tel, Bot­tas was told to let Hamil­ton by at Turn 13. He wasn’t happy, but du­ti­fully did so. Even Hamil­ton was un­com­fort­able, telling the team to get Bot­tas to speed up to al­low them to edge away from Vet­tel, some­thing that wasn’t pos­si­ble be­cause of the Red Bull ahead. Had Ver­stap­pen not been there, had Mercedes not left Hamil­ton out for a lap too long and had he then not been forced to risk blis­ter­ing by at­tack­ing Vet­tel, the team orders might never have hap­pened. But Wolff felt with a driv­ers’ cham­pi­onship at stake, there was no other choice. “We had Valt­teri in front man­ag­ing the tyres, Lewis be­hind with a blis­tered rear and Se­bas­tian all over Lewis,” said Wolff.“at that stage, there were two pos­si­ble out­comes. The best case would have been it stays like it is and we fin­ished sec­ond with Lewis and win with Valt­teri. The worst case was the blis­ter wouldn’t last un­til the end and Lewis would have been over­taken by Se­bas­tian. That is why Valt­teri in be­tween was the call we made. Re­al­is­ti­cally, it was the right call to do, but our sport­ing heart says no.” This is the kind of ruth­less de­ci­sion-mak­ing that is, like it or not, the stuff of cham­pi­ons. Once Hamil­ton was in the lead af­ter Ver­stap­pen had stopped and re­joined well be­hind fourth-placed Raikko­nen, it made sense to leave him there to bank the ex­tra points de­spite Bot­tas un­der­stand­ably ask­ing if or­der would be re­stored late on. And Mercedes de­serves credit for be­ing frank, with clear in­struc­tions to Bot­tas dur­ing the race and clear ex­pla­na­tions af­ter­wards. Team orders are a fact of life. As en­thu­si­asts we may not like them, but the fact is that neither do the teams. This was a one-two fin­ish for Mercedes, but the cel­e­bra­tions were sub­dued be­cause of the way things had panned out. Was it sport­ing? By one def­i­ni­tion, of course it wasn’t. But the ob­jec­tive of pro­fes­sional sport is to win and the un­work­able ban on team orders was lifted eight years ago, so by an­other mea­sure it was the only sport­ing de­ci­sion that could be taken. In parc ferme, an un­com­fort­able and un­happy Bot­tas had a look at the rear tyres of Hamil­ton to con­firm the blis­ter­ing was real. Who can blame him? Af­ter all, he’d been robbed of a race win and, hav­ing been told he could race for vic­tory pre-gp, he clearly won­dered if it was a put-up job. But in the cold light of day, even he will grudg­ingly un­der­stand why it hap­pened. What­ever hap­pens in this ti­tle race, Hamil­ton cer­tainly owes his wing­man one af­ter this.


Bot­tas and Hamil­ton kept both Fer­raris at bay at the start

From 19th on the grid, Ver­stap­pen made it to fifth by lap eight

Cru­cial move: Hamil­ton dives un­der­neath Vet­tel to re­take sec­ond place

Bot­tas checks Hamil­ton’s tyres for ev­i­dence of the blis­ter that prompted the team call

Mercedes opted against swap­ping back in the later stages

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