If the way Mercedes used the team's orders at the Russian Grand Prix seemed awkward, that's because it was.
It is laughable to suggest that Mercedes Lewis Hamilton had to put points on the table at the end of the season by letting Valtteri Bottas win the Russian Grand Prix, writes Nate Saunders.
A Lewis Hamilton victory over a one-two victory was perhaps exactly what the team wanted for the weekend, but the way it was planned was not to scroll. To justify the result, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff spoke about the "hard reality" of fighting against a title fight, but there was still a feeling that something had gone wrong with the execution of the strategy. Instead of celebrations after the race, the team looked for explanations – and for many fans they fell on deaf ears.
Although he did his best to suppress them, Valtteri Bottas had good reasons to put thoughts of betrayal on his mind. After his hard-earned pole position on Saturday, he was told in his pre-race briefing that, if everything went according to plan, the Russian Grand Prix would be his to win.
"We told Valtteri that if everything were planned, if we were running one and two at the end of the race, we would leave it that way unless we felt threatened," Wolff said on Sunday evening.
"We felt we needed to race, Valtteri had outdone Lewis, he was on pole and we felt that if it were fair and just, we would not interfere with the guys racing."
But at a certain moment between round 12 and round 25, agreements have been made to throw that plan out of the window.
Engineering a victory
If Mercedes had achieved a Hamilton victory from the start, the easy move Hamilton would have been the first and the performance advantage of fitting new tires – known in the F1 as the undercut – would allow him to take Bottas. But instead, Mercedes placed its first car first – according to the usual procedure when two teammates follow the same strategy – leading Bottas to continue as soon as the two Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel had all taken new tires.
Then things started to go wrong. Hamilton stayed two rounds longer than Bottas, giving Vettel the undercut. The Ferrari came second from the single round of pit stops and Hamilton.
"We did well to call Valtteri at first to protect his position, but we were one lap late with Lewis," Wolff said. "I accept it because I was working with James [Vowles, Mercedes chief strategist] in a conversation when he should have made the call.
"To tell you the truth, when these things happen, there's a lot of discussion about the strategy channel between James and myself." While we were thinking about what to do, I was in exchange with James, and this made us a round chose too late, one round, my mistake. & # 39;
Mercedes even told Bottas that he had to keep Vettel on his lap, hoping Hamilton would be able to move in between them, but the strategy fell silent and car 44 came out of the pit stop in third place.
Hamilton started making ammends for Wolff's deliberation with a remarkable overtaking in round 16. On a circuit where like-minded cars stayed behind each other, Hamilton started the attack and forced himself past Vettel at turn 4 after are blocked at Turn 2. What was not clear then, was how Bottas had played a role in the catch-up.
"Lewis came out in third," said Bottas, "but the round was the most important, I do not think many people saw it, but in sector two I slowed down a lot, so that Lewis could get close to Sebastian. Lewis DRS could get Sebastian and in sector three I pushed hard so Sebastian DRS could not get rid of me, so he was more draggy and Lewis was behind him.
"At that moment he actually came in Turn 4, so I really tried to play my role in that."
The cars from Mercedes ran again one-two, but the hard races had taken a toll on Hamilton's rear tires.
In short, the soft tire was now mounted on all three cars and competed for victory, the most difficult of the three compounds that Russia has to offer. Overall, the entire weekend suffered from minimal degradation, hence the strong pace of Verstappen at the front, and was virtually insensitive to graining and blistering due to the two softer compounds. Almost impenetrable, but not completely …
By pushing so hard, so early in the life of the band, Hamilton had opened a small row of blisters on his left rear. The blisters did not look serious – and it looks like they were not serious – but Mercedes did not want to take the risk.
"Lewis had to fight hard to overtake Sebastian, which was really a great move, but the tires blew," Wolff explained. "And then we found ourselves in a situation in which Valtteri had managed to master the ties at the front, Lewis was left behind with a blister tailgate and Sebastian was all over Lewis.
"At that stage there were two possible outcomes: the best case would be that it remains as it is and we ended up second with Lewis and the victory with Valtteri, but the worst case was that the blister would not last until the end and Lewis could be overtaken by Sebastian to manage his tires.
"Rationally it was the right call to swap them, even if our sporting heart said" no. "
The end justifies the means
The call came a round too early for Bottas, who was releasing a catch-up operation at Verstappen just as Wolff put his finger on the "tactic" button to convey the message to the rest of the strategy team.
"In the beginning, I was told that I had to go through Verstappen, which was certainly possible for me and I came closer," said Bottas. "I was planning to overtake two laps afterwards, and then through that process, when I first pushed the soft tires a bit more to the limit of the car, I suddenly got the call to move to Lewis. was confusing.
"Maybe communication wise [we were lacking], or there was not enough understanding that I had available. "
Bottas, for his part, did nothing wrong at the Russian Grand Prix and raced even in support of Hamilton, even when he was in charge. He could have expected him to be paid back with a shot in victory for his efforts – as in the pre-race agreement – but a bad strategy call that Hamilton was being pondered by Wolff's, caused a series of unfortunate events. It is no wonder that Wolff called the one-two victory of his team as a "mess" in an interview with Sky Sports immediately after the checkered flag.
"There are a million scenarios that we have discussed this morning, but we had another one in the race," he said. "I think after Sochi we have to take a step back, fly back home, analyze and say what we can learn from a day like today."
Mercedes was undoubtedly too jumpy with its strategy – the blisters on Hamilton's tires never resulted in the loss of performance the team had feared – but there was no reason to change the drivers at the end of the race after the deed was done.
"No, no more at the end," Wolff said. "We did it in Hungary last year [for third and fourth place] but we are now five races at the end of the season. They are seven points up and down, and as far as it is difficult to make such a call, someone has to do it. That's why we did not think about switching back. "
It may not have been in the previously agreed strategy, but a Hamilton-led one-two was still the final result that Mercedes could achieve for both championships. And Wolff was convinced that Bottas would understand it.
"He is such an intelligent man and understands how team dynamics are progressing, and what we were discussing this morning was whether he was in Lewis' situation that he would expect team work for him – and the answer is clear, yes," said he. "Rationality gives you the answer, so he understands that, but in his heart, in the same way in Lewis's heart and our whole heart, it just does not feel right that he did not win the race because he was the guy number that was in charge. "
Ultimately the goal justified the means.