Mercedes keeping Japanese Grand Prix team orders options open

SUZUKA, Japan — Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff says he will keep his options open over the use of team orders at the Japanese Grand Prix, but plans to avoid the misunderstandings that occurred at the last race in Russia.

Valtteri Bottas was ordered to move aside for teammate Lewis Hamilton on lap 25 of the Russian Grand Prix, ultimately handing victory to Hamilton 36 laps later. The decision divided opinion among fans but was made all the more controversial as Bottas had been told ahead of the race that he would be allowed to retain the lead if the cars ended up running one-two.

Wolff claims he went back on that agreement because the team had not envisioned a situation where Hamilton would be coming under threat from Vettel and wanted to ensure Mercedes’s sole title contender did not lose points to his main rival.

Hamilton starts ahead of Bottas on the grid at Suzuka, making a repeat of the Sochi situation unlikely, but Wolff said the pre-race briefing would allow for greater flexibility on Sunday.

“I would want to keep the options open for tomorrow and see how the race goes, and not tend to believe, like we did in Sochi, that we can discuss every eventuality.

“We are trying to learn. Maybe our discussion that we had on Sunday morning in Sochi was a good discussion, but it didn’t consider the situation of us being under pressure in the way we were; in a sandwich like situation with Sebastian all over Lewis and Verstappen in the front.

“It reminds you that the best plan doesn’t survive contact with the enemy and that happened in Sochi. So the discussion is going to be a different one, leaving enough space to take decisions that might be a necessary evil.” Hamilton extended his championship lead by 10 points to 50 in Sochi, meaning he could fail to finish two races and still be leading the championship. But Wolff said that would not alter Mercedes’ approach and drew comparisons with Hamilton’s 2007 title bid with McLaren, which he ultimately lost to Kimi Raikkonen by a single point.

“No, the 50-point gap doesn’t change anything. In 2007, two races to go, 45 points between the drivers — in today’s points — and he lost the championship. Would anybody have thought you could lose 45 points in two races? Impossible.

“Racing happens on Sunday and the quickest car doesn’t necessarily win. We had the moment in the summer when we weren’t the quickest car and we scored some victories. I wouldn’t want to take the foot off the pedal because a DNF in a freak race and it’s all vanished. So our approach hasn’t changed.”

Wolff said Mercedes took valuable lessons from the Russian Grand Prix, including the way in which the team discusses decisions over team radio. Wolff said it is important to limit chatter on team radio and that, ultimately, chief strategist James Vowles makes the final decision.

“James flies the airplane and what I can do is comment and give him feedback and input, but ultimately it’s his decision,” he said. “Although with my ranking I am higher up, I will not interfere and it is his call at the end. We are probably distracting each other all the time. Today he said ‘Quiet on the radio now, apart from Shov [chief race engineer Andrew Shovlin] and I’ and that was directed at me, I guess.

“The race support room back in Brackley is engaged as well, but I also have this special button with James Allison [technical director] where we are offloading all the crap and vice-a-versa, just to not offload it on the guys who are actually flying the plane.

“Unless I am 100 percent convinced that he [Vowles] has not spotted something, I will not give my input and I will not interfere in the final decision.”