Motor Sport News - - Front Page - BY BYR OJBAEMRTESSJAMES

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

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