HAMILTON ORDERS UP A WIN
RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX CONTROVERSY
Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff revealed he struggled to sleep on Saturday night, worrying about the potential need for team orders in the following day’s Russian Grand Prix. In the team’s prerace strategy briefing on Sunday morning, the engineers discussed various scenarios, except for the one that played out in the 53-lap race.
At Turn 13 on lap 24, Valtteri Bottas was instructed to let his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton pass him to take second place on the road – which was effectively the race victory. Bottas had out-qualified Hamilton and led the early laps, but a strategic pitstop error had compromised the Brit’s position and with blistered tyres he needed help to fend off the threat from title-rival Sebastian Vettel.
With just five races left in the championship, Wolff made the decision to sacrifice Bottas’s position and secure the extra seven points for Hamilton in the title chase.
Hamilton took his eighth victory of the year in Sochi, crossing the finish line just 2.5 seconds ahead of his Mercedes team-mate, with Ferrari’s Vettel in third.
Despite the one-two, the mood in the silver camp was downbeat afterwards with both drivers and management describing it as a “difficult day”.
When asked if his actions were unsporting, Wolff admitted he had spent the previous night dwelling on Ferrari’s decision to use team orders at the 2002 Austrian GP and the affect that had on Formula 1.
“Rationally it was the right call, but from a sporting side our hearts said ‘no’,” said Wolff. “It was difficult to make, but we had to do it and it was a shame that he [Bottas] didn’t win the race. Someone has to be the ‘baddie’ and today that was me, but I’d rather be the baddie today than the loser in Abu Dhabi…”
The performance of the Mercedes in both Friday’s second practice and Saturday morning indicated the battle for pole position would come down to a straight fight between the two silver cars.
On his first run in Q3, Hamilton was quicker in the first and final sectors of the 3.6 mile lap, but Bottas had the advantage in the middle sector. The margin between the pair was tiny, just 0.004s in the Finn’s favour. Hamilton knew he had to dig deep to overcome his team-mate and when the pressure was on, he made a mistake on his final run and lost the rear of his Merc entering Turn 7; lap aborted.
Meanwhile Bottas improved on his last run and took his first pole position since Austria and his second of the year.
“The middle sector hadn’t been too bad throughout qualifying,” explained Hamilton. “Q1 was really good and then Q2 wasn’t so great and just generally throughout the weekend it’s been a bit up and down through that sector.
“In my first lap in Q3, I was down 0.3s in the middle sector but I was quickest in the first and last sectors. I had to push quite a lot because I knew he [Bottas] would gain time. But I over-egged it a little bit, I think I picked up a little bit of dirt on my outside tyres and then there was less grip for the next corner.”
The Ferraris took up the second row (Vettel was 0.556s off Bottas’s pole time) while Kevin Magnussen equalled his best result of the season with fifth. Another impressive lap came from Charles Leclerc, who was seventh in his Sauber.
Their performances were extenuated by the fact the Red Bulls, Pierre Gasly (Toro Rosso) and the Renaults opted to sit out Q2. The reason was because the Red Bull duo and Gasly were facing grid penalties for power unit changes (Max Verstappen was also hit with a three-place grid penalty for failing to slow for a waved yellow flag for Sergey Sirotkin’s spun Williams in Q1).
Renault used the opportunity to ensure it started outside the top 10 and could run an alternative tyre strategy to the leaders on race day.
As discussed in Mercedes’s pre-race briefing on Sunday morning, both Bottas and Hamilton positioned their cars perfectly off the starting grid. Their aim was to prevent third-placed Vettel from getting a tow and taking the lead. As Hamilton ran in his teammate’s slipstream, he expertly muscled the Ferrari out of the way to snub out any attack.
As the two Mercedes approached the braking zone for Turn 2, Hamilton pulled alongside his team-mate and despite a late lock-up wasn’t in a position to challenge for the lead. Rounding Turn 3 the order was Bottas, Hamilton, Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen – and the quartet would remain in those positions until the first of their pitstops on lap 12.
Further back, there was excitement in the opening laps from Verstappen, who duly earned the status of driver of the day. On his 21st birthday, the Dutchman was fittingly robust in his charge through the field.
He was forced to start 19th as a result of additional power unit elements being used in the rear of his Red Bull,
in combination with his yellow flag infringement from qualifying. Off the line he had to swerve to avoid a slowstarting Gasly directly in front of him, but as he headed through Turn 3 he had already made up a further four places.
By lap two the flying Dutchman was up to 11th and overtook four more cars on the next four laps of the Sochi Autodrom. By starting on the soft tyre he was able to extend the length of his first stint and inherited the lead when the hyper and ultrasoft runners ahead of him pitted. That was on lap 19 and he retained P1 until he finally made his stop on lap 42, emerging behind Raikkonen in fifth place.
His Red Bull team-mate Dan Ricciardo surprisingly didn’t make the same meteoric progress, which was partly explained when he pitted on lap 39 for his one and only stop (from sixth) and the team changed his front wing. A piece of the wing came off his car during contact at Turn 2 on the opening lap and the debris ended up hitting Gasly’s visor.
“When I saw it coming first, I thought it was going through the visor,” said Gasly. “Thankfully, the visor is really strong, it hit it and fell into the cockpit. It was pretty scary. At the time I was coming out of Turn 2, so I wasn’t so fast. Luckily the impact wasn’t as big as it would have been at 300kph [186mph].”
The events that led to the Mercedes team orders controversy then took place between laps 12 and 14. Bottas pitted from the lead on lap 12 and switched from the hyper to the soft tyre. His team-mate Hamilton should have pitted the following lap, but due to a miscommunication, he stayed out one more tour.
Mercedes boss Wolff apologised after the race, to say that he was talking to chief strategist James Vowles during the crucial moment and they missed the opportunity – but it was effectively a strategic owngoal. Vettel did pit and when Hamilton finally stopped one lap later, he found himself behind the Ferrari.
Realising the mistake, Mercedes asked Bottas to slow down and back Vettel into Hamilton. On the approach to Turn 13 on lap 15, Vettel was caught out by Bottas and locked up, allowing Hamilton to get a run on his title-rival as they started the next lap.
Using DRS, Hamilton had a run on Vettel, but the Ferrari moved to the middle of the track, then moved again to the inside to block the Mercedes in the braking zone for Turn 2. Hamilton then followed Vettel around the outside of Turn 3 and out-braked him into Turn 4.
“Mercedes kept me out for another lap which I think was not the right decision to make. Sebastian came in, undercut massively and I lost 0.6s or so,” said Hamilton, “It was quite frustrating when I came out behind them both.
“I slipstreamed [Sebastian] down to Turn 2 and pulled out. From my view, he moved and then moved again. At the time, if I didn’t brake I would have been in the wall and we would have crashed. It was a double move which we often talk about and that we shouldn’t do.”
Despite no contact, the stewards did look into the move and decided that no further action was warranted.
“I think it was clear that Valtteri was dropping back to make life difficult, so they played well together as a team,” said Vettel in response. “Yes, I had a bit of a wobble into Turn 13 and Lewis got DRS. I saw him coming but I thought I moved before the braking, so I wanted to make sure I covered the inside. Didn’t mean to be – how do you say? – an irritation at any point.”
Sitting next to Vettel in the post-race press conference, Hamilton added: “I’m sure if we watch it afterwards you might say yes, I moved twice…”
In his bid to get past Vettel, Hamilton had suffered blistering with his tyres. It was as a result of that and the continued threat from the Ferrari man, that led to the decision to instigate team orders and sacrifice Bottas’s victory for the sake of the championship campaign.
When a clearly dejected Bottas was asked afterwards whether he felt the team had made the right decision, he avoided inflaming the situation.
“The difference is that Lewis is fighting for the drivers’ championship and I’m not,” said the Finn. “From the team’s point of view it was the ideal result today. Maybe not ideal for me but for the team, yes.”
Despite the criticism, Wolff felt the right decision was made to give Hamilton the extra seven points in the drivers’ championship – taking him to a 50-point lead over Vettel with five races remaining.
“Look at Austria, where we were 1-2 and we lost 43 points,” said Wolff. “I’ve seen freak results before in motor racing and it can happen again. We cannot take our performance for granted for the rest of the season.”
As the teams packed up from Russia on Sunday evening, there were warnings of a typhoon in Japan. Could there yet be another twist in this championship campaign?
Hamilton team ordered him to move aside for points leader Bottas was left frustrated after the Mercedes