No backsies for Bottas: Hamilton wins on Mercedes team orders

2018 Russian Grand Prix review

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On the approach to turn two at the Sochi Autodrom, drivers pass within about 250 metres of a restaurant called La Punto. There for 300 roubles you can buy a cocktail of tequila, sambuca and tabasco sauce which they call ‘Sample B’.

The name is a reference to the site’s former purpose: It was the home of Russia’s state-run doping programme, where urine ‘B samples’ from athletes were switched so drugs cheats could compete undetected.

So in the grand scheme of things, far worse crimes against sport have been committed in Sochi than when Valtteri Bottas waved Lewis Hamilton by on the 24th lap of Sunday’s Formula 1 race so he could win. Not that you’d know it from the borderline hysterical reaction on social media.

Mercedes outmanoeuvre Vettel

From the moment the five red lights vanished Mercedes gave Ferrari a lesson in team tactics, including those of the less-than-savoury kind. At Monza, Ferrari locked out the front row of the grid but Hamilton got in among them, muscled his way past Sebastian Vettel, and was on his way to a stunning victory.

Start, Sochi Autodrom, 2018
Mercedes held their advantage
Mercedes swept the front row in Sochi but they weren’t about to let the Ferraris steal their advantage. Vettel, third on the grid, got away fractionally better than the two silver cars ahead of him. But the W09s held formation into and through the first braking zone. Vettel’s best chance of separating them was gone.

“I had nobody who was giving me any tow,” he reflected. “I think it was clear Mercedes did a good job, Valtteri moved immediate to give Lewis a good tow. I had the best start out of those three but couldn’t go anywhere.”

So Bottas led Hamilton, Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen through the first corners. Behind them Kevin Magnussen temporarily led the midfielders while Charles Leclerc displaced Esteban Ocon for sixth. However those two positions were destined for the Red Bull pair, notwithstanding the fact they had lined up 18th and 19th.

Leclerc took over fifth place as the second lap began with an inspired move on the outside of Magnussen at the long turn three. Ocon was poised to follow him through but Magnussen cut across sharply, the pair banging wheels, and the Force India driver fell in behind him for what proved a long afternoon.

Hamilton loses out in the pits

Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton, Sochi Autodrom, 2018
Vettel defended hard – for a while
Bottas came into the weekend 110 points behind Hamilton so it was inevitable the team were going to have a pre-race talk about how to maximise Hamilton’s championship chances. “We are not in a part of the season where I would particularly enjoy the Mercedes racing each other at the front,” said team principal Toto Wolff before the race.

But with Vettel looming in Hamilton’s mirrors during the first stint, Mercedes chose to preserve the lead of the race to begin with. Bottas headed for the pits at the end of lap 11, discarding his ultra-softs for a set of softs which would see him to the end, and ensure he wasn’t going to be ‘jumped’ through the pit stops.

The logical next move was to bring Hamilton in immediately. As he had track position over Vettel, who had stayed out, heading for the pits would snooker his rival. But Hamilton stayed out – Wolff later said his way his error, as he’d been too busy talking to strategist James Vowles for the call to be made in time.

Instead, Vettel made for the pits, no doubt unable to believe his luck that Mercedes had fumbled such a straightforward call. Now he had the opportunity to use the performance of his fresh tyres to gain on Hamilton.

Fernando Alonso inadvertently aided Vettel’s cause. The McLaren driver was the only one to save two sets of soft tyres for the race and hoped to use them to provoke his rivals into pitting too soon and getting caught out by tyre degradation. He came in on lap five, which prompted a response from Williams.

Sergey Sirotkin dropped to last after his pit stop and began to hove into Hamilton’s view. The disturbed air from the Williams cost him precious tenths. Vettel cut nearly a full second out of him in the middle sector.

Hamilton headed for the pit lane. Ferrari, taking their cue from Mercedes’ tactics at Monza and other races, sent their pit crew out to deny Hamilton a clean run into and out of his box. (They covered themselves by telling Raikkonen to “do the opposite to Hamilton” as he approached the pit entrance. “But I can’t even see him”, he pointed out.)

It all added up as Ferrari hoped. Vettel swept around the outside of the Mercedes as Hamilton rejoined the track. But in little more than a lap he threw away that vital advantage.

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Team orders

Bottas handed Hamilton victory
Vettel locked up into turn 13 and Hamilton stalked him as the 19th lap began. A month ago at Spa Hamilton had been unable to resist Vettel’s Ferrari-powered charge along the Kemmel straight, but now the Mercedes seemed to have more than enough power to attack the Ferrari.

Hamilton dived for the inside at turn two but Vettel, leaving it desperately late, covered him off. Hamilton came back at him at the exit of turn three and sailed easily down the inside at turn four. It was as if Vettel had lost appetite for the fight, a view his subsequent comments also hinted at.

“It was very difficult to see where he was,” Vettel explained. “I couldn’t see him for a very, very long time and then just saw his tyres and I knew that he was then somewhere there.

“I didn’t want to be a complete arse by pushing him into the dirt and potentially into the wall so I wasn’t quite sure where he was and then at some point I had to give in.

“I thought I could maybe get it back out of turn four but I had to give him the entrance otherwise, you know, at some stage it just becomes silly.”

It’s hard to imagine someone like Verstappen taking that view. Or, on the strength of his Sochi drive, Vettel’s future team mate Leclerc.

Perhaps Vettel feared the stewards would take a dim view of his defending at turn one. And he had some cause to, as race director Charlie Whiting was concerned by what he saw, and mentioned it to the stewards before Hamilton got on the radio to complain about it.

“I thought that needed to be looked at,” said Whiting. However the stewards were satisfied Vettel had kept it clean. “How I see it doesn’t really matter, it’s how the stewards see it,” Whiting pointed out.

“They felt that in all reality it didn’t constitute two changes of direction which is what the regulations require for a penalty,” he said, adding “I think they took a slightly lenient view on that.”

However Hamilton’s move had over-stressed his one-and-a-bit-lap-old tyres. A small blister was beginning to develop. Mercedes sensed a long-term threat to his position, and moved to protect their championship leader.

“You need to let Lewis by into turn 13 this lap,” came the order which Bottas immediately followed. Afterwards he questioned the instruction, and Vowles came on the radio: “We had a risk with Lewis against Vettel he has a small blister,” he explained. “I had to do this to make sure we secure this. I understand.” This was the explanation Mercedes stuck to after the race.

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Little reward for Verstappen

Max Verstappen, Red Bull, Sochi Autodrom, 2018
Verstappen hoped for a Safety Car birthday present
While all this was going on, Verstappen had risen through the midfield so quickly that the leaders’ pit stops had dropped them behind the soft-tyre-shod Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo, having damaged his front wing on the first lap (which gave Pierre Gasly a nasty fright), did not get through the field as quickly.

Red Bull left Verstappen out, hoping a Safety Car period would give them the chance to make a quick pit stop and go after the leaders. At one point Hamilton drew within range then dropped back quickly, possibly to protect his tired tyre.

When Verstappen eventually pitted, for a set of ultra-softs, he didn’t have the pace to chase down the lead quartet. He therefore settled for the fifth place he predicted 24 hours’ earlier when he was still a 20-year-old.

Leclerc’s lap two heroics secured a well-earned seventh place ahead of Magnussen. Force India orchestrated two positions swaps between Ocon and Sergio Perez in an unsuccessful attempt to displace the Haas – exactly the tactics they spurned in Canada last year which contributed to the breakdown in relations between the two drivers.

A disappointed Romain Grosjean missed out on a points finish despite passing Nico Hulkenberg in the closing laps. This was one of few positions changes not performed by a Red Bull or as a result of team orders at a track which again proved a poor venue for wheel-to-wheel action.

“It’s not very good at all for racing,” the race winner admitted. “You’ve got the really long straight but the characteristics of the circuit mean the first two sectors are quite fast and the last one, the last sector, the rear tyres are so hot, it’s impossible to follow another car, so you can’t even get close to have a run.”

Difficult questions

Valtteri Bottas, Sebastian Vettel, Sochi Autodrom, 2018
Vettel complained about questions over Bottas’s role
Last year’s Russian Grand Prix had been a joyous one for Bottas as he delivered his maiden F1 win. This time he, Hamilton and Mercedes scored a joyless one-two and spent the rest of the day explaining why Bottas had to surrender what would have been his first victory of the year.

Mercedes’ tactics divided opinion between the usual extremes. The howls of protest on social media contrasted with the view of Mercedes’ most vehement supporter who was, of all people, Vettel. Not for the first time this year, the Ferrari driver rebuked the media for asking Mercedes questions he didn’t approve of.

“I don’t think it’s fair now asking them tough questions because I think what they did and how they played as a team today makes complete sense,” he said. “Obviously it’s a bit dull for the race but it makes sense so it’s not entirely fair to or not nice to ask them those difficult questions.”

Vettel would certainly not have liked RaceFans’ questions to Wolff on Sunday. Given Mercedes told Bottas they only issued the order to protect Hamilton when he was under threat from Vettel, why did they not restore their original running order at the end of the race as they did in Hungary last year? After all Vettel was five seconds behind at the flag, and Mercedes had said they were prepared to let Bottas win the race.

“Two reasons,” Wolff explained. “First of all when you’re early in the season the pressure within the team is not as high as when you’re in the last quarter of the season, it’s a completely different situation.”

“In terms of speaking to them, in Hungary actually what we said to Valtteri was ‘if he can’t pass Raikkonen, we’ll take it back’ and that was all we did. Today the circumstances were completely different.”

That detail seemed to have been lost on Bottas, who in the final laps asked his team on the radio whether they intended to give him his win back. Not this time.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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29 comments on “No backsies for Bottas: Hamilton wins on Mercedes team orders”

  1. Not likely they will give backsies to Bottas in any future race either. Not that he or any self respecting driver would want to *win* that way anyway.

    1. It’s strange there’s so much fuss over team orders – this is the era in F1 with the least amount of advantages for a team leader in the history of the sport. In the early days of F1 drivers would swap cars during the race if the team leader needed it, and up to quite recently the No. 1 driver would have the spare car set up for him, with first dibs on upgrades, etc.

      1. Good points @greenflag; I would argue that it is exactly because we aren’t used to seeing it that way, that team orders became controversial. When we are regularly fed the (illusion of?) two equal drivers picture, anything that detracts from that becomes jarring.

        I think it would be much better if Mercedes had either : a) stuck to that line, which they did to great effect while they were so far ahead in 2014-2016, where otherwise there would not have been any fight for the WDC; or b) had made a clear decision to favour the WDC candidate from now on.

      2. @greenflag – Good point.

        For what it’s worth there was that era not so long ago when team orders were allegedly banned. Of course, teams still found a way to get around it.

    2. No backsies? I guess its so childish act.

  2. I admit to spending the last laps wondering if and when Hamilton would be asked to give back the place or volunteer it. At the same time, it seemed unlikely and kind of pointlessly symbolic. The switch had been made. Hamilton needs the points not Bottas. Switching them back doesn’t really ‘correct’ anything as we don’t know what would have actually happened had they not been switched – maybe Hamilton could or would have fought to get past at some point (he used to be good at hunting down Rosberg, admittedly Sochi isn’t an ideal circuit). The drivers did a great job, including the start. Hamilton’s retake of second was excellent (I agree, I think Vettel knew he’d been too aggressive blocking Hamilton with the double move and backed down from defending really). Wolff’s self-blaming for chatting to his strategist when the latter had to call in Hamilton is fine as an admission, but bizarre – seems like he’s over-managing then. Most of the hysteria seems to have been stirred by the mood of the drivers themselves, Bottas looking humiliated, Hamilton embarrassed. Not really necessary on either side, though.

    1. Can we really take Toto’s explanation at face value? I immediately thought they were leaving Lewis out to try to overcut Bottas without it seeming like team orders, the way Vettel did to Kimi at Monaco last year.

      1. @markzastrow It’s a valid question since they were telling him on the radio to push and it was OK. Though difficult to tell if that meant to get ahead of Bottas or just keep ahead of Vettel.

      2. Can we really take Toto’s explanation at face value?

        No. Everyone is lying. The truth no longer exists. The conspiracy theorists are right.

        Better question: “Do we have any reason to disbelieve Toto?”

        I find, absent proof to the contrary, that it’s easier to take public statements at face value. But I have no evidence that Toto is lying, so why not accept his explanation?

    2. @david-br – I think Toto Wolff’s next occupation will be politician.
      (Not meant as complimentary, btw.)

      1. @bullmello The world seems over-populated with them already!

        1. @david-br
          we already have someone(s) that does just that, and named “anon” the guy is a joke… anything and everything merc/ham is crime for him, and his reasoning are childish at best! constantly bashing… and constantly negative

  3. Not sure if this will ever be discussed in more detail, but during the race I was following Red Bull and Renault progress and they were the 2 teams running soft until later and would run a softer tyre (it was actually Ultras for all 4 cars) for the final laps (on cars with low fuel), expecting them to be on new faster tyres and able to gain some time on cars running old and “slower” tyres.
    I read later that Sainz had a damaged car so that explains but I still got surprised that neither car seemed to gain from running on Ultras. Hulkenberg lost more time to the other cars than the time he had lost during his stint on softs (after others pitted for softs too), and the Red Bulls made zero gains to the cars in front. Ricciardo got a fastest lap at a certain point but Hamilton and Bottas beat that time on older soft tyres (Ricciardo’s fastest lap was just the 5th fastest).
    It seems that the Ultras didn’t work at all (looked slower than older softs) at least late in the race. Or was it just a coincidence since the Red Bulls had really nothing to gain (Raikonnen was more than 14s in front of Max with 10 laps to the end and Daniel was too far behind)?

    And what a difference from the Singapore GP where the guys in the top 10 managed to stay there (except for 2 that had to give way to the Red Bulls) despite having to start on used Hypers…
    I guess that the issue in the Singapore race was more the Sirotkin factor (all who stopped early ended up behind him and then lost tons of time)

    1. Apparently a lot of that was also due to a need for fuel saving @bakano, in other words, probably hoping for a safety car to make the strategy really work. Fuel saving also explains how Magnussen managed to stay ahead of Hulkenberg when he made his late stop: Magnussen was slower than the Racing pointers bc. he was fuel saving, then put in fast laps to counter Hulk’s stop.

  4. “We are not in a part of the season where I would particularly enjoy the Mercedes racing each other at the front,” said team principal Toto Wolff before the race.

    I think this is the most important quote by Wolff and explains the team order.

    Wolff was facing two situations. First scenario is safer but unpopular option which is to issue a team order and ensure a risk free 1-2.

    Second scenario is risky where he doesnt pass any team order and lets the two Mercedes to race each other for the win. The way Lewis overtook Vettel is very telling. If no team orders were given Lewis would definitely have a go at Bottas for the win and there would be a risk of collision/tyre damage. Lewis and Vettel almost collided just few laps earlier.

    In my opinion, Lewis and Wollf did the smart thing. Lewis patiently waiting (but not asking) for the team order/decision. And Wollf correctly judging the situation and letting Lewis through without the two Mercedes drivers fighting for the win and risking a collision.

    1. Yes @amg44 I agree it was the smart thing, the obvious arrangement for the best outcome. But regardless of the rational explanations, it was not nice to see. As all the previous similar examples in the sport were also not nice, fans don’t like being robbed a fight, nor drivers being robbed a position they were holding on merit. No wonder the rating for this race seems to be extremely low.

  5. The podium ceremony was like someone had died. Bottas looked like someone had stolen his puppy, while Hamilton was trying hard to look embarrassed. And Vettel looked like the Cheshire cat, grinning, and waiting for someone to ask the question neither Merc driver wanted to talk about. I would rather they just own it and give the people a show.( ie: spray the champagne and smile) Even the crowd looked sad or disappointed. I remember Schumi giving the top step spot and the trophy to Rubens when they swapped at the end of a race. If Sunday is how things will be every time a team uses orders, I say go back to codes( secret orders) so the crowd isn’t so deflated.

    1. @twiinzspeed I hear you, but really I think there is just one comparison to make between Russia 2018, and Austria 2002. Both cases had quite different circumstances to them, but stripping all that away, in both cases RB and VB had earned their wins, and had become the sentimental favourites for the wins on those particular weekends due to their teammates usually overwhelming them and taking the lion’s share of the points most weekends, and so both, the fans felt, deserved to be thrown a bone for a change, as on those weekends they didn’t deserve to have to hand over their wins. Usually team orders will not evoke the same sullen podium presentation, but I’m sure you know that.

    2. I guess the question becomes should Mercedes have not helped Hamilton in that situation? I think they should have because he’s driving for Mercedes. Vettel doesn’t think Mercedes did anything wrong, and I suspect a lot of other people within F1 do too. Maybe there was time on the last lap to do a swap, but races are dynamic, so strategy has to be done on the fly. You can’t sit down in a planning room and work out an ideal outcome. My suspicion is Toto daren’t ask Hamilton to give the place back on the last lap because Hamilton has previously said he’d never do that again, so basically Toto had painted himself into a corner in that regard. Everyone can hear the discussion on the RT, and if Hamilton had refused to obey a team order then that would have been embarrassing for Toto. Once Hamilton was given first place the “cat was out of the bag”, so Toto had to live with that situation. Maybe it wasn’t necessary, but when Toto made the decision to invoke team orders he couldn’t be sure it wasn’t necessary. Really the choices he could see were a Mercedes 1 – 2 or a Mercedes 1- 3, so the 1 – 2 finish is the decision he made.

  6. I agree, Bottas earned his win and it would have been best if he could’ve kept it. In the long run, I doubt Hamilton will even be semi close to needing them. I think he and MB have broken the will of Ferrari this year and we will have to wait and see if Leclerc can reignite the fire next year.

  7. Bottas knew what he was signing up for and who his teammate was going to be.

  8. At least Mercedes were entitled to do this more than their emmissions che@ting and price fixing scandals

  9. I wonder if a reverse track of Sochi would work any better?

  10. I know this is a small compensation, but Valtteri got 8 times the votes Lewis did in the Racefans Driver of the Weekend Poll.

  11. ‘No backsies’ :’D

  12. When Bottas was spotted as a “shining star” at Williams, I always told that he was being over rated. Those 2 seasons at Merc proves that. He should be at least 2nd in the championship last year and this year too.
    If he wants to change his status as a 2nd driver, step up in the game and start beating HAM, like ROS did. Simple to say, difficult to execute and beat, in my opinion, the BEST driver on the grid now.
    ALO, VET and maybe RIC could do it, with the same car. Some could argue that VER also. I do not believe. He is getting better and better, but maturity plays a huge role, so VER and LEC in the future will be able to do it with the same car.

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