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
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
“WOLFF TOOK THE BLAME SINCE HE WAS PART OF THE CHATTER ON THE STRATEGY RADIO CHANNEL”
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.
“THIS KIND OF RUTHLESS DECISION-MAKING IS, LIKE IT OR NOT, THE STUFF OF CHAMPIONS”
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