If the way in which Mercedes applied team orders at the Russian Grand Prix seemed clumsy, it’s because it was.
A Lewis Hamilton led one-two victory may have been exactly what the team wanted ahead of the weekend, but the way in which it panned out was not to script. By way of offering justification for the result, Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff talked about the “harsh realities” of fighting a title battle, but there was still a sense that something had gone quite wrong in the execution of the strategy. Rather than celebrations after the race, the team was searching for explanations — and for many fans they were falling on deaf ears.
Although he did his best to supress them, Valtteri Bottas had good reason to allow thoughts of treachery to cross his mind. Following his hard-earned pole position on Saturday, he had been told in his pre-race briefing that, if everything went to plan, the Russian Grand Prix was his to win.
“We told Valtteri that if everything would be planning out, if we were running one and two at the end of the race, then we would leave it like this unless we would feel under threat,” Wolff explained on Sunday evening.
“We felt we needed to let them race. Valtteri outqualified Lewis, he was on pole, and we felt that if it was going fair and square we would not interfere with the guys racing each other.”
But at some point between lap 12 and lap 25 events conspired to throw that plan out the window.
Engineering a win
If Mercedes had been targeting a Hamilton victory from the start, the easy move would have been to pit Hamilton first and allow the performance advantage of fitting fresh tyres — known in F1 as the undercut — to move him ahead of Bottas. But instead, Mercedes pitted its lead car first — as per the usual procedure when two teammates are running on the same strategy — ensuring Bottas would still be leading once the two Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel had all taken on fresh tyres.
Then things started to go wrong. Hamilton stayed out two laps longer than Bottas, allowing Vettel to get the undercut on him. The Ferrari emerged from the single round of pit stops in second place and ahead of Hamilton.
“We did the right thing in calling Valtteri in at first to protect his position, but we were one lap too late with Lewis,” Wolff said. “I take it on me because I was engaging 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 is a lot of discussion on the strategy channel between James and myself. While we were considering what to do, I was in an exchange with James, and this made us pit one lap too late. One lap. My fault.”
Mercedes even told Bottas to hold up Vettel on his outlap in the hope that the lost time would allow Hamilton to slot in between them, but the strategy fell flat and car 44 emerged from its pit stop in third place.
Hamilton set about making ammends for Wolff’s deliberation with a remarkable overtaking on lap 16. At a circuit where evenly-matched cars tend to get stuck behind one another, Hamilton went on the attack and forced his way past Vettel at Turn 4 after being blocked at Turn 2. What wasn’t clear at the time was how Bottas had played a part in the overtake.
“Lewis came out of the pits in third,” Bottas said, “but the lap after was the key thing. I don’t think many people saw, but in sector two I slowed down a lot so that Lewis could get close to Sebastian. That meant Lewis could get DRS on Sebastian and in sector three I pushed hard so that Sebastian couldn’t get DRS off me so that he was more draggy and Lewis was behind him.
“That’s when he actually got him into Turn 4, so I really tried to play my part on that.”
The Mercedes cars were once again running one-two, but the hard racing had taken a toll on Hamilton’s rear tyres.
To recap, the soft tyre, which was now fitted to all three cars battling for the victory, was the hardest of the three compounds on offer in Russia. On the whole, it suffered minimal degradation all weekend, hence Verstappen’s strong pace at the front, and was pretty much impervious to the graining and blistering experienced by the two softer compounds. Pretty much impervious, but not quite…
By pushing so hard, so early in the tyre’s life, Hamilton had opened a small row of blisters on his left rear. The blisters didn’t look serious — and, as time would tell, they weren’t serious — but Mercedes wasn’t willing to take the risk.
“Lewis had to fight hard to overtake Sebastian, which was really an awesome move, but blistered the tyres,” Wolff explained. “And then we were in a situation where Valtteri in front had managed the tyres, Lewis was behind with a blistered rear and Sebastian was all over Lewis.
“At that stage there was two possible outcomes: The best case would have been it stays like it is and we finished second with Lewis and the win with Valtteri, but the worst case was that the blister wouldn’t last until the end and Lewis could be overtaken by Sebastian in order to manage his tyres.
“Rationally, it was the right call to swap them even if our sporting heart said ‘no’.”
The end justifies the means
The call came one lap too early for Bottas, who was lining up an overtake on Verstappen just as Wolff put his finger on the ‘tactics’ button to deliver the message to the rest of the strategy team.
“At first I was told to try and get through Verstappen, which was definitely possible for me and I was getting closer and closer,” Bottas said. “I was planning on overtaking two laps after, and then through that process, when I was pushing a bit more to the limits of the car for the first time on the soft tyres, I suddenly got the call to move over for Lewis. So that was confusing.
“Maybe communication wise [we were lacking], or there was not enough understanding that I had pace available.”
Bottas, for his part, did nothing wrong at the Russian Grand Prix and in fact raced in support of Hamilton even when he was in the lead. He might have expected to be repaid with a shot at victory for his efforts — as per the pre-race agreement — but a poor strategy call inflicted on Hamilton by Wolff’s deliberation triggered a series of unfortunate events. It’s no wonder that Wolff referred to his team’s one-two victory as a “mess” in an interview with Sky Sports immediately after the chequered flag.
“There a million scenarios we discussed this morning, but we had a different one in the race,” he said. “I think we have to take a step back after Sochi, fly back home, analyse and say what can we learn from a day like today.”
Mercedes was arguably too jumpy with its strategy — the blisters on Hamilton’s tyres never resulted in the loss of performance the team had feared — but there was no consideration for swapping the drivers back at the end of the race once the deed had been done.
“No, not at the end anymore,” Wolff said. “We did it in Hungary last year [for third and fourth place] but we are five races to the end of the season now. It’s seven points up and down, and as much as it is difficult to make such a call, somebody has to do it. This is why we didn’t think about switching back anymore.”
It may not have been in the pre-agreed strategy, but a Hamilton-led one-two was still the ultimate result Mercedes could achieve for both championships. And Wolff was confident Bottas would understand.
“He’s such an intelligent guy and understands how the team dynamic goes, and what we discussed this morning is if he was in Lewis’ situation would he expect the teamwork for him? And the answer is clearly yes,” he said. “Rationality gives you the answer so he understands that but in his heart, in the same way in Lewis’ heart and all of our hearts, it just doesn’t feel right that he didn’t win the race because he was the guy on track that was in the lead.”
Ultimately, the end justified the means.