Every once in a while Formula 1, suffers one of those weekends to forget. This weekend in Sochi falls into that category. Engine and gearbox grid penalties for six drivers, Renault not even running in Q2 and then the issue of team orders in the race.
We could be marvelling at Max Verstappen’s exploits this morning, or congratulating Charles Leclerc on a fine 7th place for Sauber. Well done to both him and to Max, what a shame that he couldn’t push as hard on the Ultrasoft tyres at the end, than he could on the Soft tyres for 40 or so laps, because we were denied even more excitement in the closing laps.
But I’d suggest that the post-race conversation is dominated more by the Mercedes switch around. The one that took the win away from a man who’d done more than enough to deserve it and handed it to a man that many of you think didn’t.
It wasn’t the way Lewis Hamilton wanted to win the race, it certainly wasn’t what Valtteri Bottas envisaged happening, but it did. Lap 25, Turn 13, Valtteri was told to slow down and let Lewis past with the team concerned at that time by some blistering on Hamilton’s rear left tyre. The inference being that Lewis could come under attack from Sebastian Vettel and he needed some protection from his wing man to stay ahead of the Ferrari.
Max Verstappen was leading at the time, and would hold onto that lead for another 17 laps before he pitted. As a result, it was holding the two Mercedes cars up to a certain extent and that was allowing Vettel to get a lot closer than he would have done under normal conditions, i.e. if Verstappen wasn’t there, which I’m sure he wasn’t in the majority of the thousands of overnight simulations that the Mercedes strategy team would have run.
Now let’s just pause for a moment, because I think it’s worth taking a few moments to properly analyse the situation at Mercedes. But before I do, I want to make one thing perfectly clear before you accuse me of abandoning all the principals of sportsmanship that we hold dear.
“I do not and have never liked team orders and if I could find a solution to rid F1 right now of those horrible sub plots to the racing, I would!”
But I can’t and it’s impossible to police and, anyway, it’s a team sport so why shouldn’t the team run the order of their drivers in whatever way they wish?
I think it’s the last paragraph that is likely to upset you the most, but sadly it’s the most relevant in terms of understanding what transpired in Russia.
So here’s my take on it, free from emotion and sentiment. Very much in the same way that Mercedes would have made their decision at the time.
Lewis Hamilton had been brought in for his pit stop one lap too late. Toto Wolff said he was distracting the team’s Chief Strategist and, as a result, Lewis was left out longer than they intended. Lewis rejoined the race straight into a scrap with Sebastian Vettel and was forced to push harder than he would ideally have wanted on those initial laps on the soft tyres. This in turn led to the slight blistering that caused the team some worry on lap 25.
With this in mind, the fact that it was the team that put Lewis in a situation where he was under threat, would have influenced them a little more when deciding that they needed to switch the drivers around.
And why did they need to switch the drivers around? Well, firstly, because Lewis had tyres that were blistering and because he was under threat from being passed by Sebastian and that wouldn’t have been good in terms of extending his lead in the drivers’ championship. An obvious one I know. But, secondly, the team were looking for a 1-2 finish and if Valtteri could not protect Lewis by placing his car between him and Sebastian that 1-2 would more than likely become a 1-3 and thus Mercedes wouldn’t score maximum points in the constructors’ championship. Which, let’s face it, is the important one for the team because it’s via the constructors’ championship that the prize money is paid out.
So, like it or not, whilst we are cheering on our heroes behind the wheel, the teams – in what is a team sport – care more about the constructors’ title, for obvious reasons. The end result is that Mercedes did get their 1-2 and Lewis now has a 50 point lead in the drivers’ championship. Job done and move on as far as Mercedes are concerned.
However, I do rather get the feeling judging by what has been said following the race and the reactions of both drivers and Toto Wolff, that the thought of switching the drivers mid race so that Lewis would be in front hadn’t been discussed beforehand. But surely that wouldn’t be the case. I’m sure you had all been thinking that the team would try this, I know I had and was fully expecting it. Sebastian Vettel said it was a no brainer and he’s not wrong.
Mercedes made the correct call and shouldn’t be ashamed of making that call. No apologies needed, Valtteri, for all his bad luck, was playing a support role to Lewis in Sunday’s race just as Kimi was for Seb and whilst you need to remove any emotions before you digest that fact, the fact remains that the team didn’t break any rules and, as a result, should stand by what they did and own the decision. One day they’ll make a similar call again and it might be that this time it goes in Valtteri’s favour, who knows?
What I would add though is that one day, maybe when I’m even older and greyer, Formula 1 needs to rid itself of team orders once and for all. Maybe if the money distribution were a little fairer up and down the grid then we could celebrate a team championship that wasn’t all about the cash. We could let the drivers race freely and without restriction, placing the sporting spectacle above all other self interest. Wouldn’t that be good? Almost as good as a few days in Suzuka where luckily one of the world’s greatest racetracks will help us all take our mind off last weekend.