SOCHI, Russia — Team orders are an unfortunate part of Formula One but Mercedes’ use of them at the Russian Grand Prix was entirely justified. Even Sebastian Vettel — the driver who arguably lost more from the decision than Valtteri Bottas — said as much after being dealt another hammer blow to his chances of a fifth world championship.
Once Lewis Hamilton had forced his way back into second position after a thrilling fight with Vettel, barring any unforeseen drama Mercedes looked certain to leave Sochi with 43 points regardless of which order its cars finished. The choice the team had was simple: whether Hamilton left with 18 (a gain of three points) or 25 (a gain of seven points). Mercedes chose the latter.
It has effectively given Hamilton a two-race buffer over Vettel with five left. He does not need to win another race to claim a fifth championship. In a season which has been as wildly unpredictable as 2018, the idea of leaving four points on the table seems laughable. Hamilton will probably win the championship from this point but on lap 50 of the German Grand Prix Vettel was probably going to win the race and a few weeks ago he was probably going to dominate the weekend in Singapore.
The way Mercedes executed this order was far from perfect but it had to be done: one victory in Sochi is nowhere near as valuable as a drivers’ championship.
The man who made the ultimate decision carried a pained expression for most of the race. Mercedes boss Toto Wolff made a rare appearance on the team’s radio channel to apologise to Bottas immediately after the chequered flag. Wolff is no fan of team orders, but has reluctantly used them when he has felt they are necessary.
He fronted up to the media afterwards and seemed happy to accept the role of the villain if it came with another championship for Mercedes.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes, and it’s me today,” Wolff said after the race. “You need to weigh it up.
“What do I opt for, to be the baddie on Sunday evening, or do I want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season? I’d rather be the baddie today than the idiot at the end of the year.”
It was not his first ‘baddie’ moment of 2018. Wolff and Mercedes also ordered its drivers to hold station after going wheel to wheel in the closing stages of the German race mentioned above, when Vettel’s dramatic crash meant Mercedes had found itself running first and second. That result was a big moment in the season and Mercedes did well not to squander it.
In his own media session a little further down the paddock, Red Bull boss Christian Horner pointed out that F1 drivers are paid by their teams to win championships.
“It’s easy to forget Formula One is a team sport and the drivers ultimately drive for the team,” Horner said. “I think in that situation it only takes a couple of DNFs.
“You’re fighting for a world championship and it’s this constant battle between a drivers’ championship and self-interest of the drivers, and the collective interests of the team. You can understand the rationale behind it. It just sounds like the execution wasn’t perhaps pre-discussed.”
The strongest and most inevitable argument on this one is that Bottas “deserved” the victory. And he did on the day. He turned in a great qualifying lap and led away nicely from the front. But his form preceding Sochi meant he did not deserve it on the season.
Too often this year Bottas’ form has been too much like Hamilton’s wingman — the unfortunate label he was given by Wolff after the Hungarian Grand Prix, where he held up Vettel at a crucial point in the race — than his equal. His pole position in Russia was just his second of the season. He arrived in Sochi all but mathematically eliminated from championship contention. The consequence of his average 2018 is quite obvious and should be motivation enough not to find himself in the same situation next season.
After the race, Bottas said it himself: “Lewis is fighting for the championship and I’m not”.
Hamilton was clearly uncomfortable about the way the race had unfolded, but at this stage he has earned himself ample credit in the bank with his form up until now. He’s on a remarkable run — five wins from the last six races — and has delivered some of the best qualifying and race performances of his career. That same form has wrestled the initiative away from Vettel and Ferrari and left him on the cusp of what would surely be his most memorable championship victory yet.
The final word on this should perhaps fall to one man who was once most associated with some of the most notorious team order incidents in F1’s history. Michael Schumacher, the most successful driver in the history of Formula One, knew how the game needed to be played and so did his Ferrari team. Schumacher only ever drove alongside wingmen and he benefited from their subservience on numerous occasions. Unlike Hamilton, he was usually unapologetic about receiving it.
After Ferrari’s infamous team orders decision at the 2010 German Grand Prix — where Felipe Massa was infamously told over the radio “Fernando is faster than you”, an order to let Fernando Alonso take the lead and the victory — Schumacher, by then driving for Mercedes, was surprised by the outrage which followed.
Speaking to the BBC after that race, he said: “In the past I have been criticised in the past for exactly that, and I have to say I understand 100 percent and I would do exactly the same if I were in their situation. At the end of the day, what are we here for? It’s fighting for a championship. And there’s only one of us who can win the championship.
“By the end of the year, if you had lost the championship for exactly that point, you would ask yourself — not only yourself, all the fans, the TVs, the journalists and so on — why didn’t you do so?”
None of Schumacher’s seven championships have an asterisk next to them and neither will Hamilton’s in 2018, assuming he finishes the job between now and the end of November. If he becomes champion the standout moments of this campaign will be his genuinely brilliant displays in this second half of the season or Vettel and Ferrari’s frequent missteps, not a slight lift of the throttle on the No.77 car on lap 25 of the Russian Grand Prix.