Mercedes’ decision to fit a fresh power unit to Valtteri Bottas’ car for the second race in a row will inevitably prompt speculation the change has been made to help his team mate Lewis Hamilton.
On the drivers’ parade before the race Bottas said the change was a consequence of his relatively poor qualifying position for the race.
“I think it’s tactical because I want to make it to the end of the race, for sure,” he said. “Of course you can always sometimes choose where you take it
“Having quite unlucky qualifying yesterday we decided it’s the right thing to do. I still believe I have a chance to come up very high and I want to be on the podium for sure.”
But with Hamilton’s championship rival Max Verstappen set to start from the back of the grid due to his own power unit change, this also looks like an opportunity to ensure Bottas can contain the threat of Mercedes’ biggest rival. It recalls Ferrari’s decision to needlessly incur a gearbox change penalty for Felipe Massa at the United States Grand Prix in 2012, which moved his team mate Fernando Alonso up the grid and allowed both drivers to start from the preferable side of the grid.
Mercedes dropped hints the change was coming in their post-qualifying interviews yesterday. Prior to that Red Bull suspected Mercedes would use the opportunity offered by Verstappen’s penalty to fit a fresh engine to Hamilton’s car, as there have been doubts over his supply of parts.
Instead Bottas has taken a change for the second race running, having done the same at Monza. He recovered superbly on that occasion, rising from the back of the grid to finish on the podium.
As this is the second time this year Bottas has exceeded the maximum number of power unit elements, his penalty is less severe than Verstappen’s, and indeed that of the other two drivers who have changed parts, Charles Leclerc and Nicholas Latifi. Bottas has a new engine, turbo and MGU-H, which translates to a 15-place grid drop. Once other penalties are taken into account he will lose a total of 10 positions, falling from seventh to 16th, four places ahead of Verstappen.
The Mercedes driver should therefore be able to maintain his position ahead of Verstappen at the start, and even if he doesn’t he should still be able to stay close enough to the Red Bull driver that he can cover his pit stop strategy. This is how Mercedes can use Bottas to legitimately interfere with Verstappen’s race and hinder his progress to the front of the field.
But it also brings significant risks. Mercedes have dropped Bottas well behind the Red Bull of Sergio Perez and within range of Verstappen. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Hamilton’s position in the drivers’ championship weighs heavier in this calculation than their slender lead in the constructors’ championship.
If this power unit change wasn’t essential for Bottas, and he fails to stay ahead of Verstappen in today’s race, Mercedes may well rue their decision to sacrifice nine places on the grid.
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