Would Lewis Hamilton be a tainted champion after Sochi?

After a controversial Russian Grand Prix, our F1 writers Nate Saunders and Laurence Edmondson join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker to discuss the biggest talking points from the race. And yes, you guessed it, we start with the events of Lap 25 …

Was Mercedes right to use team orders to help Lewis Hamilton win the Russian Grand Prix?

NS: There’s a reason you never hear anyone who has won or fought for a championship speaking out against team orders. F1 is a team sport, and results and championships are more important than doing “the right thing.” They were done clumsily, but I don’t think there’s any “good” way to have one driver give his teammate a victory. However, one thing to consider, as written after the race, if [Valtteri] Bottas wanted equal treatment he shouldn’t have waited until the 16th round of the championship to beat Lewis Hamilton. End of story.

LE: I understand why Mercedes did what they did, but I can’t help but feel it created more bad feeling toward the team than the seven-point boost for Hamilton is worth. The way in which the orders were applied didn’t help; Valtteri Bottas went into the race thinking he would be allowed to fight for victory only to be told on Lap 25 that the plan had changed. But as long as team orders are legal, you can’t blame a team for using them.

MH: Fully understand why they did it, but the execution was clumsy insofar as Bottas seemed to be out of the loop. The prerace briefing was obviously not clear-cut. Had it been established — and accepted — that this might need to happen, then neither driver would have looked so glum at the end. That part was a very poor advert for F1.

KW: My opinion on team orders remains unchanged — I understand why they do it, but I don’t like it. I don’t care which team is doing the bossing around; I want to see people race properly. Yes, Mercedes wanted to help Lewis in the title fight, but I’d rather they trusted in Lewis’ ability to get the job done on track. He’s been driving like a dream all season, regularly achieving what looks like the impossible, and there’s no reason to think he’s going to slump in the next few races. Mechanical failures could screw things up a la Malaysia 2016, but equally Seb [Vettel] could have something go boom. No championship is done till it’s done, but this one is pretty damn close …

Would Hamilton’s championship be tainted now?

NS: No. I would be surprised if there are many champions who didn’t receive help from their teammates at some point. We’ll be talking about several of Hamilton’s drives from this season for years to come.

LE: Even if he wins by less than seven points, I don’t agree that it will be tainted. What Mercedes did was within the rules in the same way that running something borderline on the car would be within the rules. The stigma might be harder for Mercedes to shake, but Hamilton should not feel bad about it.

MH: Not at all. Ferrari would — and have done — the same under similar circumstances. If Hamilton wins it, he will have done more than enough elsewhere to merit the title without having to defend claims it was largely through team orders.

KW: No. He’s been performing at the peak of his powers this year, delivering qualifying and race performances that have been a real privilege to watch. Seven “unfair” points can’t take away everything else that he’s done.

Controversy aside, it was another dull Russian Grand Prix — should the Sochi Autodrom remain on the calendar?

NS: Absolutely not. Sochi is the worst circuit currently in Formula One, bar none, and has produced genuinely dreadful F1 races every year since 2014. Several of the drivers seem to genuinely loathe the place. My mind was made up on the plane home this time: The Russian who sat next to me between Moscow and London has been to every race and, after thinking on it for a long time, said her favourite Russian Grand Prix memory is seeing Vladimir Putin from 100 yards away.

LE: If we’re talking purely about circuit layout, then no. Politically, it’s a hot potato that F1 could do without, but there is definitely a growing audience in Russia. At a time when F1 is struggling to attract new audiences around the world, it should look to exploit any emerging market. With a bunch of Russian drivers coming through the junior ranks (and potentially three on the grid next year), it can’t really be ignored. I just wish the race was in Moscow or St. Petersburg.

MH: Not having been there, I can only comment from what I see on TV. It doesn’t look great. The adverse camber corners, designed to make life tricky for the drivers, actually detract from the potential for racing. The only challenging bit is the braking for Turn 13. And it’s not exactly Monza, Interlagos or Silverstone in terms of atmosphere. It’s probably fair to say those working in F1 wouldn’t lose much sleep if it was dropped from an overcrowded calendar.

KW: No. The people who put the race on do a brilliant job, but everything else is awful. So awful that I was refused entry despite having a valid visa. Not that I’m remotely bitter about having spent over a thousand pounds on a hotel, flights and a visa, and then forking out another grand to get myself out of “The Terminal”-style visa-less limbo at Beijing airport after being refused access to board my paid-for flight. Oh, you meant because of the racing? Zzzzzzz.

Christian Horner praised Max Verstappen’s mature drive in Russia. Is this the best we’ve ever seen the Dutchman drive?

NS: He’s clearly improved, but we still saw flashes of his impetuous side at the Italian Grand Prix. But Sochi showed that when his head is in the right place there are few better. It’s incredible to think he has only just turned 21 years old, but we won’t know how much he has matured until we see him in a car that can win every weekend.

LE: I think it’s normal for a driver to progress with age, but we shouldn’t forget the mistakes he made at the start of the season. I still think he has that streak in him, and there’s a lot less pressure at this stage of the season now that Daniel Ricciardo is on his way to Renault and Red Bull is a clear third behind Mercedes and Ferrari.

MH: Apart from that moment with Bottas in Monza, Verstappen has put the questionable stuff at the start of the season behind him. The rough edges are being smoothed to allow the fantastic speed and race craft come through. Singapore was telling: In addition to that very quick lap in qualifying, he stayed impressively calm in the race despite the gearbox occasionally having a mind of its own.

KW: No. Not for Max, and not for driving in general. Max put on a stupendous show in Sochi, but he’s done better. While we all like to see drivers pick their way through the field if something goes wrong in qualy (or if the penalty gremlin strikes), we all know that when you’ve had advance notice of starting at the back, you set the car up in order to maximise your chances of overtaking. Better equipment means better driving …

Having confirmed Daniil Kvyat’s comeback, whom should Toro Rosso put in their other seat?

NS: It would be nice to see Pascal Wehrlein given another chance, now he’s been freed of his Mercedes ties. I had hoped the team would take a punt on Stoffel Vandoorne, but that is off the table now.

LE: In an ideal world it would be Esteban Ocon, but that’s not going to happen as long as he has links with Mercedes. Of the serious contenders, I would say Pascal Wehrlein deserves another shot the most.

MH: Lack of pace and really bad luck mean the moment has probably passed for Brendon Hartley. Dan Ticktum seems intent on talking himself out of the drive at a time when Red Bull’s junior roster is depleted. Pascal Wehrlein must be in the reckoning following his release from Mercedes, but the driver I’d like to see in there if contractually possible is Stoffel Vandoorne.

KW: George Russell! Or Alexander Albon. We need to see some more F2 talent get a chance at a seat, and George and Alex have both been doing brilliantly all year. This was supposed to be Lando’s walkover season, but Norris is out of mathematical contention for the title yet still has an F1 drive signed and delivered. I’d love to see him fighting against the guys he was supposed to be beating in Formula Two — the championship has had a tricky season this year with start issues and the like, and a Norris vs. Russell rematch in cars that work would be a real treat.