Yesterday’s race at Sochi saw Mercedes use team tactics to move Valtteri Bottas out of the way to help Lewis Hamilton gain extra points in his championship fight with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The Finn, Hamilton and the team were glum and downbeat in Parc Ferme after what happened.
Mercedes’ dilemma started in qualifying. Bottas pipped Hamilton on the first runs in Q3 by 0.004s and this put extra pressure on the second run for the Brit. After putting in a brilliant first sector, Hamilton made a big error at turn 7 and abandoned the lap. Valtteri took pole position for the race.
Wolff said in an interview with Sky Sports F1 after qualifying that "It is going to be difficult to tell him you are not allowed to race after putting it on pole. We will have the conversation tomorrow morning and let's see how the race is going to pan out."
Nothing changed at the beginning. Bottas made a superb start and fended off Hamilton as the Brit tried to make move around the outside into turn 2. At that point, it looked like a swap seemed unlikely as the Finn got his elbows out.
They pitted the Finnish driver from the lead on lap 12 – but then got themselves into a pickle. Instead of pitting Hamilton a lap later to cover Vettel, they stayed out. The German boxed on lap 13 and got the undercut on his British rival. Unknown to many people, Tony Ross, Bottas' race engineer, asked the Finn to drop his pace and ''back Vettel up'' on Hamilton's in-lap.
Yet, it didn’t work. The Brit rejoined in a net P3 and needed to overtake Vettel on track. Within a couple of laps, he made a fantastic move on the German to take back that position.
On lap 25, the order to Bottas came. Tony Ross asked him to move out of the way for Lewis at turn 13 and Valtteri duly obliged. Hamilton cruised home from there and took the victory from his Finnish stablemate and Sebastian Vettel. A potential 43 point lead turned into a 50 point one following the swap.
Wolff explained to Autosport why they made the call: "Lewis had to fight hard to overtake Sebastian, which was really an awesome move, but blistered the tyres.
And then we were in a situation that Valtteri in front managed the tyres, Lewis behind with a blistered rear and Sebastian all over Lewis.
And at that stage, there were two possible outcomes.
The best case would have been it stays like it is and we finish 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 in order to manage his tyres.
This is why I think Valtteri in between was the call we made.
Rationally, it was the right call to do, but our sporting heart says no."
Wolff was asked if the tyre blistering was a valid reason to enforce team orders, and he said: "We saw it at Spa [with Bottas after an early stop on lap two], we had to pit another time [27 laps later]. Ferrari at Monza [with Vettel] had a bad blistering problem and had to pit again.
Imagine the scenario, having to pit Lewis again and finishing sixth or seventh. Finishing sixth, rather than winning the race. That's the pressure moment where we made the call."
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel defended what Mercedes did: "Well done to both of them, they played together as a team very well.
In their defence, all the questions - I know you guys love controversy so therefore ask naughty questions to them as individuals, but I think in the position they are it's a no-brainer what they did today.
Maybe not all the questions are justified."
It was a very cruel decision on Valtteri Bottas. He did a tremendous job in qualifying and was controlling the race and managing his tyres very nicely before the instruction to let Hamilton through occurred. Once again, he put the team before himself like he’s done many times since he joined the German squad.
It left a bitter taste in the mouth for a lot of fans, but they’re tactics that a number of teams have used many times in the past. McLaren at Jerez in 1997, Ferrari in Austria in 2002 and Germany in 2010 are a few examples of it. Mercedes also deployed them in Malaysia back in 2013 to stop Rosberg and Hamilton battling each other. All the top teams of recent times are ‘guilty’ of it. The fact of the matter is the drivers are employed by the team and need to obey what they get asked to do.
Are these moments nice to witness? Certainly not – but as unfair as it may have seemed, Mercedes took the right course of action yesterday to switch the drivers.
At the end of the day, the Finn is not in the championship hunt and every point counts. Hamilton knows all about this after losing a 17 point lead in the final two races of 2007 to Kimi Raikkonen. Mercedes can’t afford to take the risk.
Ultimately, team orders will happen again in the future. That’s the way things work in motor racing. Formula One is a ruthless series and Mercedes showed it at the Russian Grand Prix. It’s better to be an unpopular winner than lose a possible championship because you didn’t use them.