Valtteri Bottas, Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2020

Could Mercedes have used team orders to get Hamilton on the podium?

2020 F1 season

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Did Mercedes throw valuable world championship points away with their tactics in the closing laps of the Austrian Grand Prix?

The W11s crossed the line first and second at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday, Valtteri Bottas ahead of Lewis Hamilton. But Hamilton’s five-second time penalty for tangling with Alexander Albon relegated him to fourth place in the final classification.

Hamilton ended the race on Bottas’s tail, the pair separated by seven-tenths of a second. Had Hamilton been just two-tenths of a second further up the road, he would have taken an extra three points. World championships have been lost by less.

After the race, Hamilton was quick to reject any suggestion Bottas might have slowed him down deliberately in the knowledge it would cost him more points.

Both drivers had also contended with reliability problems for much of the race. Mercedes told the pair to minimise their use of the circuit’s punishing kerbs which threatened to aggravate an electrical problem which could cause an “instant kill” gearbox failure.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2020
Tangled with Albon compromised Hamilton’s race
But allowing for all this, given how close Hamilton came to finishing on the podium, did Mercedes miss an opportunity? Could they have told their drivers to lap quicker, or even waved Hamilton past Bottas, to minimise the damage of his five-second penalty?

After Hamilton’s penalty was confirmed, Mercedes told Bottas on the radio not to hold his team mate up. “Lewis has got a five-second time penalty,” he was advised on lap 66. “Need to speed up. Build that gap.”

Both drivers were also trying to claim the bonus point for fastest lap, despite the limitations on how hard they could push. Hamilton set the fastest lap on the 67th tour with a 1’07.7, but Bottas took it off him the next time by a tenth of a second.

On the 69th lap, both drivers had to back off due to double waved yellow flags at turn seven. Bottas eased off much more than Hamilton, lapping in 1’10.0 to his team mate’s 1’08.5. The gap between the pair, which had been 2.1 seconds, fell to just six tenths.

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This had two consequences for Hamilton: Running closer to Bottas made it harder to improve his lap time, and also threatened to bring their pursuers within range. Having dipped into the 1’07s, their final two laps were in the low 1’08s.

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2020
“There is no tension” – Bottas
Following their post-race debrief, Bottas said Hamilton had not raised any concerns about how he drove over the final laps. “We went through the race in terms of my point of view and Lewis’s point of view and and the team’s point of view,” he said. “There is no tension that I’m aware of.”

Bottas also explained why he backed off so much for the yellow flags. “When you’re in the lead you, of course, want to minimise any risk,” he said. “You have to slow down at least half second for double yellows, so I did that.

“Then I knew there was going to be an opportunity to try and go for the fastest lap of the race and it would be silly, not to even though we couldn’t use the kerbs, we could at least try within the limits, so was charging the the pack as well.”

Bottas may have thought that by generously slowing down for the yellow flag and bringing Hamilton into his slipstream he could ensure he took the fastest lap bonus point instead of his team mate. He probably didn’t expect Lando Norris would take it from the pair of them on the final lap, and by doing so beat Hamilton to third place as well.

As team principal Toto Wolff pointed out after the race, “Valtteri had no idea what was going on behind him.”

“There was a double yellow, so there was no backing off, but there was a double yellow and he wanted to make sure to be on the safe side there.”

But could the team have orders Bottas to let Hamilton through, knowing Hamilton would inevitably end up behind him, and limit his risk of losing points.

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“You could argue that if they would have pushed completely to the end, maybe we would have retained the podium,” said Wolff.

“But that starts to get really messy. Switching them, we’ve had it in Budapest many years ago and we nearly got overtaken by Verstappen.

Toto Wolff, Mercedes, Red Bull Ring, 2020
Swapping the drivers meant “too much risk”, said Wolff
“This time around, the thinking that I had [and] we had was that you need to explain to Valtteri what’s going on, that there is a five second penalty and then ask Lewis in the last lap to let Valtteri pass again.

“So if Valtteri can’t keep up, you can’t let him pass. And/or if Leclerc and Norris on fresh tyres are in his gearbox then obviously Valtteri, rather than winning the race, ends up fourth. So too much complexity to do such a switch. Too much risk.”

This is logical. But the argument could be made the Mercedes should have let Hamilton take the chequered flag first, with Bottas a few seconds behind, holding up the rest of the cars, to maximise the team’s result.

There is a danger here, too, however. Five-second penalties are not chiselled in stone. While they have rarely, if ever, been overturned in F1, they have been on several occasions in supporting races, notably with Juri Vips and Liam Lawson in Formula 3 last year.

If Mercedes had told Bottas to let him team mate past, and the stewards had done a U-turn in their penalty decision on Hamilton – which wouldn’t have been their first of the weekend – Mercedes would have inadvertently cost Bottas a victory. That’s not something a team would ever like to contemplate.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

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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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40 comments on “Could Mercedes have used team orders to get Hamilton on the podium?”

  1. tony mansell
    7th July 2020, 13:27

    I felt they were ‘multi 21’ing their drivers. I have nothing other than what I felt during the race to back this up but the team were laying on the problems a bit thick and then at the end they said speed up. For the same reasons they objected to reverse grids they object to their drivers racing, that is, they lose full control over the universe. I have huge admiration for what they have done and as a Brit Lewis will always get my support but the sooner they up sticks and take their 400mill a season with them the better.

    1. yes, a lot of the gearbox warning messages sounded a little bit like code – perhaps that’s just a cynical perspective (it might even be harmful to send coded messages in the heat of battle), but it kind of makes sense given it’s race one of a shortened calendar.

  2. Yes they could by let Lewis pass and Bottas keeping within 5 seconds. I found it strange they didn’t do that as it was the clear thing to do.

      1. It is amazing just how incompetent F1 teams (even those at the top) are so often across a season. As soon as Hamilton got the penalty my first thought was they should let him through but require he kept the gap to Bottas to less than 5 seconds – it’s not complicated at all. Instead they just sat there and did nothing.

        1. I doubt Lewis would have stayed within 5 seconds of Valtteri if he’d been given a free pass. He’d have been 7 seconds down the road by the time they got to the Finish Line. A few years back Lewis said “Never again” when he was asked to let Valtteri pass him, so it goes the other way too, even if asked Valtteri shouldn’t have let Lewis pass him. After all the drivers would get paid a bonus for a win, and you’re suggesting Valtteri foregoes his bonus and Lewis gets one because he broke the rules? No, leaving the drivers as they were was the best decision. Yes, that cost Mercedes some Constructors’ Championship points, so in some ways it was a generous move to not try to maximise their points, but it also stopped us thinking Mercedes were cheats. The Stewards made a decision to punish Lewis and Lewis took the punishment. Justice, even though to Alex it probably wasn’t enough, was done. Kudos to Charles and especially Lando for being within 5 seconds of Lewis at the Finish Line and reaping the rewards.

  3. Yes they could, but Austria would get the tradition of the most atrocious team order in F1 history.

    1. Remind me what was worse in Austria than deliberately crashing in Singapore?

      1. I think it was 2002 perhaps? Barrichello basically coming to a stop over the line to let Schumacher cross first and win the race. Maybe not as bad as Singapore, but certainly more overt.

        1. Maybe not as bad as deliberately crashing? Err, OK.

          1. Except that nobody knew it was planned and completely deliberate at the time.
            Unlike 2002.

  4. What I believe cost them them the 1-2 was not pitting under the second safety car, as it appears they were not worried about damaging the gearbox sensors. If they pitted, came back behind Albon and Perez, I am sure both of them would have easily overtaken them, given the pace difference that they had the entire race. There was no way they were going to keep Albon behind after the second safety car.

    1. @krichelle I agree. I don’t think Bottas should have allowed Hamilton past. Hamilton needs to sort out his qualifying performance still versus Bottas at Austria and elsewhere, then he won’t have so many of these problems. Hamilton was faster in the race, but playing catch up, Bottas deserved the position and the win. But Mercedes didn’t need to put their drivers under pressure at the second restart, which they’ve more or less admitted.

      1. I think Hamilton sets his car up to be quicker in race pace and relies on his raw natural pace advantage to hopefully beat Bottas in qualifying. Maybe he might change this philosophy for this shortened season as there’s no point being quicker in the race if you can’t get by the car in front.

        1. @ Alex That may well still be the case. Also the circuit is one of the few ones where both Bottas and Rosberg before him have managed to beat Hamilton fairly regularly (Socchi being another), more than likely because of driving style. It’s a good question though. Hamilton has clearly had a set pattern to the past few seasons, timing his peak for mid-season, almost always getting a sequence of wins from Monza on that leaves the opposition trailing too far and shifting the pressure. How does he mentally prepare for a repeat this season when we still don’t know how it will pan out, or even where halfway is?

  5. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
    7th July 2020, 13:43

    I’ve already noted on another page here that during the last lot of double waved yellow flags, Hamilton gained 2 seconds on Bottas on lap 69. He’d then obviously made the gap to norris bigger than it should have been by breaking the rules and nearly made it over 5 seconds. I’m baffled how this didn’t get investigated. Basically, If he had stuck to where he should, (which was 2.4 seconds behind at the time) , Bottas will not have been slowing him down much at all.

    1. Because Hamilton did slow, but Bottas decided to park up for 2s for a localised yellow?

      1. +1 Ian dearing – There’s a video which shows Hamilton did nothing wrong. Either Bottas Slowed too much or was caught out by a flag being yellow but which was green by the time Hamilton got there. Its such a non-story but Ben just can’t drop it. The other drivers ( leclerc and Noris) also gained the same amount on Bottas as Hamilton did, yet those get no mention from Ben…

        1. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
          7th July 2020, 13:59

          I’ve read your comment and i did look into it too soon without looking at the others also catching up. So In that regard, I am wrong that Hamilton was too quick.

          However, I still think regarding safety, slowing down by a second is pretty hopeless given drivers should be prepared for the unexpected. Even slowing down this much won’t mean you have significantly more car control for something you are not prepared for.

          1. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
            7th July 2020, 14:04

            This isn’t something aimed specifically at hamilton, I’ve often wondered why so many complain about the number of safety cars and other safety aspects occur. Then when something terrible happens, the level of complaints you get about lack of safety or what should have been just goes crazy. Going a bit off topic here, but just making a point. Sorry for going onto much about the incorrect point earlier.

    2. oh please change the record @thegianthogweed !

      That’s 4 different articles you’ve commented this on now. He’s done nothing wrong and its boring to read the same comment over and over with no relevence to the article

      1. Yes, he does this on other sites too. Just highjacks numerous threads with the same point. Although a regular theme seems to be Hamilton should be punished. Although giving him the benefit of the doubt I assume in this case he thinks its not only normal to lose 2s on a localised yellow, but anyone who doesn’t should get a penalty.

    3. It didn’t get investigated because as the article states, Hamiltons laptime during the double yellows was a second slower than the previous laps. (Bottas says half a second is normally enough, but he slowed more than Hamilton because he wanted to charge his batteries for a push for fastest lap).

  6. Jose Lopes da Silva
    7th July 2020, 13:53

    I keep sensing that we had team orders in Mercedes in this race and that Hamilton happily complied because of the threat of mechanical failure and all the good record with the team. Even without that radio 1-2 message, the fact is that Hamilton catched Bottas and did not try to pass him a single time. We were expecting something like 2016, but it came out nothing.

    1. @ Jose, before they were radio messaged into submission, I thought Hamilton was looking to pressurize Bottas more than pass him, trying to force a mistake, over stress Bottas on the curbs and get past later. Maybe that’s precisely why Mercedes ordered them to ease off.

  7. There’s no room for debates when you present all the arguments, Keith. It’s an ‘instant kill’.

  8. I don’t know why Lewis wasn’t let through and took the chequered flag first… surely the risk of overturning the penalty was minimal, close to zero. I think they thought they had it under control, but in fact cocked it up by one tenth of a second, and now are justifying their actions.

  9. It’s for certain that Mercedes could have still got a 1 – 2 by moving Lewis in front of Valteri, and letting him charge off while Bottas held up the pack beyond 5s. From a purely WCC perspective this would have made sense as it maximised the points scored. However this would have been grossly unfair on Bottas as he drove well all weekend and deserved to be in the lead, and it was Hamilton’s fault that he got the penalty. Fans would not have been happy.

    It’s possible that they could have let Lewis ahead, got them both to fly off and get Lewis out of the 5s then swap back but ultimately it would be hard to ensure they were 5s clear but still able to swap back, so you’re in the same territory as above.

    Ultimately Mercedes did the right thing and what they would have gained in Constructors points, they would have more than lost in reputation for tinkering with the result.

    And if you consider the bigger picture…Mercedes are already 11 points ahead of the next team (which is Mclaren, and thus not really a threat), they’re going to walk the Constructors championship and so they had far more to lose than gain in terms of a manoeuvre like that. So I’m glad that whilst they considered it they decided not to.

    1. that is to say hamilton was fast enough to charge off. for all we know bottas was managing his pace and would have none of it if mercedes requested team orders.

  10. Seems to me that had they gamed it to get lewis up further with cooperation from Valteri to score a 1-3 instead of a 1-4 they would be handing points to lewis and making mockery of the equal treatment policy they claim. Tells VB that he is not equal no matter what they say.

  11. Ben Rowe (@thegianthogweed)
    7th July 2020, 14:29

    That is quite an amusing picture chosen for Bottas saying “There is no tension” :D

    What an evil stare!

  12. No. From a fan perspective, I think that then people would have said that he already have the number one status. Following by some commments about past examples when Bottas had help him. No thanks.

    He made his luck during the GP, that’s enough.

  13. Michael (@freelittlebirds)
    7th July 2020, 15:40

    I wasn’t aware that Bottas put in an unusually slow lap under yellow flags while being aware of Lewis’ time penalty.

    Obviously, a bit of gamesmanship going on there.

    The fact that McLaren are 2nd in the championship and Red Bull 9th after the 1st race are really hard to believe. All of McLaren’s happiness has turned into pain for Red Bull.

  14. they could have, but it would have looked like bad sportsmanship, espically since the last lap switches in austria between ferrari drivers, and the fact that this is the first race of the season. also it woud be terrible for mercedes to favour one driver over the other in the first race (even if it meant for 3rd place)

  15. I’m getting sick of this 5 second penalty rule, or rather the application of it. It’s just so arbitrary because you can’t/don’t have to take it immediately, but only at a normal pitstop or added to the final race time. What if there would’ve been a safety car in the end? Then suddenly the 5 seconds would be worth many positions. It already was because there was quite a late safety car, so the field was quite closely packed. We’ve also seen instances of when faster cars can overtake by corner cutting and then simply pull away before a pitstop (in Abu Dhabi), wait the extra 5 seconds and still emerge ahead, thus gaining track position by cheating rather than being stuck behind a slower car, unable to pass.

    Maybe it’s too complicated, but they should really think about adding a “penalty lap route” (a bit like the joker lap route in rallycross) that takes 5 seconds extra to all tracks, so that you can take the penalty immediately. That would make it so much fairer.

    1. Just as an example, hamilton at interlagos 2019, he took albon out and since there had just been a SC, he lost more places than normal out of a 5 sec penalty.

  16. @oel-f1 I agree that the time penalties aren’t perfect, for the reasons you said. A 5 second penalty can be worth taking intentionally sometimes, to gain track position. And it could cost you anywhere from nothing, up to several positions if the field is stacked. The question is whether there is any better solution.

    I wondered about a placement penalty, something like – give one position back, and if not done immediately you would lose one position at the end of the race. That way if someone was close behind you could give the position up and still fight to recover it. But it has the same problems as time penalties in that sometimes it will be too harsh, and sometimes maybe not harsh enough. You could ‘win’ the race by a minute but still be classified 2nd for a minor infringement if you weren’t able to give up the position in the race.

    So unless someone comes up with a better solution, or a fair adjustment to the current system, then different levels of time penalties seems as good as anything I’ve seen.

    1. @keithedin For the cases where one driver gains a position/keeps their position unfairly, I reckon it’s very simple – let the other car past or get a drive through. That way the offender has nothing to gain by not letting the other car through. Although there is the risk that the other car pits before the offender has got the message to let the other car past, so in that case a drive through might turn out too harsh. So for that special occasion (if and only if the other car either pits or retires), a 5 second equivalent penalty might be fairer. Although I’d still prefer to see my proposal of a “penalty route” so the penalty can be taken immediately, rather than the current system. They introduced that in the Swedish Touring Car Championship a good number of years ago, not sure if they still have it since I stopped watching a long time ago, but if they could do it then why wouldn’t F1 be able to introduce something similar?

  17. They could have, not quite easily. But I believe there is a rule against altering the outcome of a race. (which most teams violate with team orders, but not sure ordering Norris out of a podium would still fly)

    Then there is total destruction of Bottas. Poor guy, he gets pole, he gets win, then is ordered to come in behind Lewis?

    I think Toto is a good enough leader not to have done that.

    Because why? Because also of damage to the Mercedes brand. You have way fastest car, then you manipulate results? They need to be super careful or they get bad publicity. And bad publicity is bad, when you are Mercedes.

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