Saturday at Spa-Francorchamps, Lewis Hamilton secured the pole position in a very commanding way, leaving his teammate Valtteri Bottas 0.5 seconds adrift, with the RedBull of Max Verstappen 0.1 seconds further behind. Yet, Bottas wasn't too bothered about his second place on the front row start, because it's commonly known that from La Source to Les Combes, the tow effect plays a big advantage in the hands of the followers.
Unfortunately for the Finn though, he was unable to capitalize that slipstream advantage at the start, thanks to a clever lifting tactic from Hamilton that allowed him to secure his lead. Bottas then switched his focus on trying to pass his teammate on track. In doing so, he and his Mercedes team had had a puzzling radio exchange which raised eyebrows amongst the viewers. Valtteri asked : "We have one push, no?" to what his race engineer replied "We do but we agreed not to use [it] against each other". That response from his engineer seemed to surprise Bottas.
Understandably, the question on whether the two drivers are free to race each other popped up. You could see on various social media platforms the disappointment of certain fans who were craving to see Bottas giving Hamilton a much harder time. You could read here and there : "aren't they free to race each other?" "Mercedes are robbing the fans of a fair fight".
It was then to be expected that, when Mercedes offered to answer their fans’ question regarding the grand prix, that issue of why Bottas was being told he couldn’t use the press button to close up to Hamilton would inevitably arise. And James Allisson, the team’s technical director duly indulged : “This weekend at Spa was probably the last weekend ever where the drivers had all the mode allocations available to them that the PU has to offer. [...] They had a limited amount of overtake presses each that they could apply during the race. And when they press that button for the overtake, they get for a short period, the full might of the PU to go down the straight with”.
“It is however a very limited resource, because it does a lot of damage to the PU and therefore something that we only get a very small number of. So we need to make sure that we use that resource in the best possible way for the team and the best possible way of using it is to make sure we are using it against our direct competitors, against the people who we are fighting against in the championship, not against each other”.
“So we didn’t want to use it in a fight between Lewis [Hamilton] and Valtteri [Bottas] but we did want to make sure that we had that overtake button available to us in the case of a safety car restart, in the case of some bad luck meaning that we were behind someone that we needed to get in front of”.
Allisson insisted: “We’d had that agreement before the race not to use it against each other but both drivers knew they were free to race one another, just not using that last step of PU performance”.
Regarding those comments, it seems Mercedes were more protecting themselves from competitors' attacks than actually hampering Bottas' chances to close up to his teammate. They were also probably already nursing their engine, having in sight, the restriction on mapping modes from Monza onwards. For Andrew Shovlin, Mercedes' trackside engineering director: "there is a deal with the engine. If you take more today, you will damage yourself tomorrow. In terms of Spa, that meant we already had the races from Monza in the back of our heads and wanted to bring the engines into the new era as virginly as possible. Every sharp lap would have cost us later".
"Therefore, after the starting lap, Hamilton and Bottas only had one use of the power mode up their sleeves. And after consultation, it should only be used for a restart after a safety car phase or in a direct duel with Verstappen, if necessary". Shovlin added : "Valtteri would only have harmed himself had he used it against Lewis"
Ultimately, it was up to the Finnish driver to fight Hamilton with the same engine mapping both drivers were given. But Lewis’ relentless pace meant Bottas had to settle for second, with the clear intention to fight back a week later at Monza.