The signs Mercedes didn’t sacrifice Bottas to help Hamilton through “tactical” engine change

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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When Mercedes confirmed they were replacing the power unit in Valtteri Bottas’ car for the second race in a row at Sochi, a hue and cry went up on social media.

Bottas originally qualified seventh for the race but was relegated to 16th on the grid by the penalty Mercedes incurred by changing parts of his power unit. They fitted his fifth engine, turbocharger and MGU-H of the season, moving him further past the maximum allocation of three per driver. Mercedes said the change was made for “tactical” reasons.

In response, accusations flew that the team had chosen to sacrifice Bottas in order to help Lewis Hamilton keep his championship rival Max Verstappen behind.

This claim rested on the assumption that Bottas would contain Verstappen during the race. If that was his mission, he failed, for on the sixth lap Verstappen nosed down the inside of the Mercedes at turn 13 and Bottas offered not a hint of resistance.

Bottas was “fair” with Verstappen, said Horner
You couldn’t accuse Red Bull of being reluctant to criticise their championship rivals this year, but they weren’t among those claiming Mercedes had sacrificed Bottas. Verstappen was asked during the pre-race drivers’ parade if he thought they were trying to interfere with his race and demurred. “You’d have to ask them,” he said.

Team principal Christian Horner, speaking to media after the race, also passed on the opportunity to stick the boot in. He also pointed out Bottas was scrupulously fair in dealing with Verstappen when they met on the track.

“I’m not aware of the reasons why,” said Horner. “It was stated ‘tactically’ before the race.

“I thought Valtteri was fair with Max when they were racing wheel-to-wheel. He didn’t lose any time passing him. And that was an important move in the race.”

Horner’s team have already exceeded the power unit allocation for both their drivers, partly due to damage, and suggested Mercedes’ change for Bottas was due to similar reasons.

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“Obviously they’ve got issues like all of us are managing. We’re very much focussed on our own issues rather than Mercedes.”

Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2021
Mercedes expected overtaking would be easier at Sochi
After the race Mercedes gave a similar explanation to Horner, referring to concerns over the state of their power units. They also said that, in retrospect, they would have reconsidered their decision to swap Bottas’ engine parts had they realised how difficult overtaking would be at Sochi.

This was the second race in a row Bottas has been moved towards the back of the field by a power unit change. At Monza he climbed from 20th to finish third, but at Sochi he was heading for a non-scoring finish until a late rain shower gave him the opportunity to move up the order.

The team’s head of trackside operations Andrew Shovlin said they wanted to change the power unit on the number 77 car in order to inspect it. But he admitted they might have waited for a later race to do it had they thought Bottas would find overtaking so difficult.

“That power unit we need to do further investigation on and just have a look at it back at Brixworth. But it was simply a case of looking at where he was qualifying, thinking that we might need to take another at some point. We just decided to go for that and put a new power unit in.

“But saying that, when we made the decision, we thought it would be a race where we could recover more easily than we did. I think knowing how hard it was to overtake, we might have taken a different view on that.

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“But it was really just a case of, with the wet qualifying and not having performed at the level of the car, we felt that would be the logical time to take it.”

Shovlin said the drop in temperatures at the track between Friday and Sunday made it more difficult to overtake in the race than expected.

“[In] the cooler conditions the front tyres were having a tough time, we were understeering a bit. Whereas on Friday the rears were really the axle that was suffering the most, here it was the front.

“When you can’t follow in those last four corners, then you can’t get close enough to overtake. It was really down to car balance. But I think that the cooler conditions were actually making it more difficult rather than easier.”

No doubt some Formula 1 teams have done more cynical things than change one driver’s engine early – or unnecessarily – to help their team mate in the championship. And Bottas has leant Hamilton a hand in Sochi before. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what happened this time.

Quotes: Dieter Rencken

2021 Russian Grand Prix

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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...
Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...

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47 comments on “The signs Mercedes didn’t sacrifice Bottas to help Hamilton through “tactical” engine change”

  1. These are all signs that Mercedes didn’t succeed in their plan but the plan was still there. I guess Bottas didn”t want to play that game. The only other reason I can think of is that Mercedes hopes Bottas can be more comparative to Max with a new engine in the remaining of the season.

    1. You think despite a new engine and their exceptional pace on the dry running practice that Mercedes didn’t think Bottas would move through the field reasonably quickly?
      And you think Bottas decided he would let Max past easily and just coast around at the back half of the grid because he has no desire to deliver a WCC to Mercedes, or enjoy the large bonus that goes with that.
      I suppose its one way to let prospective employers know your feelings come before the teams, the WCC and a possible WDC for your teammate.

      1. Mercedes might have thought Bottas would be quicker but I said they didn’t succeed in their plan (keeping Max behind). As for Bottas it’s clear he didn’t decide to let Max pass but I guess he didn’t want to slam the door. He could have played a more aggresive game with Max but he is too much of a sportsman to do that.

  2. Mercedes games. What about the fake pit stops they throw out and get away with?

    1. Yes, I noticed that @sjzelli, when Hamilton was stuck behind Ricciardo they put their mechanics out in the pit lane, then went back in again once the McLaren had pitted. Not the first time they’ve done that either.

      You are not supposed to have people in the pit lane unless your car is stopping, for obvious safety reasons, but for some reason every time Mercedes break that rule it is ignored by race control.

      1. @sjzelli @red-andy I haven’t heard the radio message, but I suppose that Hamilton was told to do the opposite of what Ricciardo would do. It’s not the first time a team is doing this. Mercedes was genuinely ready for the stop.
        I can’t see how penalizing teams for such strategy would improve the sport.

      2. Despite the way it’s currently written (which has been the same for years), the way FIA enforces it currently is that as long as you have some level of legitimate intent on pitting, it’s fine. That means “follow what he does” or “do the opposite of him” tactics are allowed. Presumably they will check radios to verify intent.

        And you can tell how much teams are bothered by this by the fact that Red Bull has not complained about it at all (despite bitching about anything and everything about Merc – and they vice versa) probably because they want it as a tactical option as well.

        The alternative is basically a world where teams are penalized everytime a driver doesn’t pit when the crew is out. As an example would be Mercedes later in the racepreparing to change Hamilton to Inters when he decided not to follow. Nobody for that one will say they had no intent to pit and nobody (unless they really dislike Merc or Ham) will say they deserve a penalty for that, same goes for any other team in that scenario.

        Enforcing the rule as it’s written also means which means that pit crews will go out even more later than they do now which increases the chance of something wrong happening and endangering people.

        That allbeibg said I do agree the actual written rules need to be rewritten to reflect the current way they are enforcing it though just to be more clear cut with everyone. If FIA is fine with teams putting out crew as long as some intent is there, then put it in writing.

  3. Besides, when has VB ever held Max up?

    1. When he’s mistaken him for Hamilton?

      1. @ian dearing That was a good one!

        I wonder if we added up time held up by VB for Max and Lewis, what would the results show?

      2. Nice one.

        Reply moderated
    2. Nobody able to held Max when he’s on charge this season unless you have fresh tyre advantage. On equal fight he can overtakes Lewis easily too just with the starting sprint.

    3. @robbie that’s true, he never gets his elbows out at all. Even if he doesn’t want to defend for the team which he’s paid for, he has to defend for himself.

      I do wonder if Mercedes, though, asked him not to defend so that the penalty wasn’t viewed as a low tactic. Again, I’m giving the guy the benefit of the doubt for the umpteenth time.

    4. @robbie – what did you think about that engine change yesterday?

      1. Emma, my first thought was that the odds of VB holding back Max was slim, even at a track such as Sochi that has been touted a Mercedes track. So to me it made more sense that this was legit a strategic move for VB’s car for the rest of the season, and not some unfounded conjuring that a move such as that was worth the fantasy of VB being any meaningful bother to Max.

        1. I respect your level-headedness and rational thinking @robbie. Ok – at least most of the time :-). There are many people here who should take a leaf from you.

          1. Well thank you, Emma. Lol to ‘most of the time.’

    5. Correcting his mistake at Hungary with Ver. Great Sportsman.

  4. VB’s instagram story was gold

  5. I couldn’t believe the hue and cry yesterday and I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that some people were actually throwing around phrases like “kick Mercedes out of the championship”. Like I said then, this championship seems to have driven some fans nuts.

    1. Surely there must be some measure against teams using the 2nd driver to take out the 1st driver of the opponent team, otherwise red bull could do it too, including the alpha tauri drivers.

    2. Bottas was a decent driver, he, unfortunately has a teammate who is a juggernaut. His just never been reliable enough, Has a few special moments and then goes back to being lost on no man’s land. Not sure if it’s Verstappen or Bottas fans but they’re rabid and way too salty, also starting to see the same with Perez fans.

      Reply moderated
    3. 48h after the race and Mercedes still hasn’t come up with a credible reason for making Bottas start last. No wonder people are making up their own theories.

      1. @paeschli – they don’t owe you any reason to be honest. So you can go along with whatever makes you feel good. Even though the actual reason has been out there since Sunday for anyone bothered enough to do enough digging.

      2. How about the credible reason Mercedes haven’t come up with a credible reason for making Bottas start last was because he didn’t start last?

      3. He didn’t start last, he started 17th because of other peoples penalties.

        Typically, qualifying 7th, he would have been at the very back with 15 grid drops, but because of other people also having penalties, it meant that Bottas would only lose 10 places instead, so it made a lot of sense for Mercedes to change that many components and lose less places.

  6. ‘a hue and cry went up on social media.’

    More like all out hysteria, the pressure might not be getting to Max but it sure is getting to he’s fans. As someone who put £25 at 5/1 in April 2007 on Lewis to win the WDC and who watched in disbelief when he sat there with a box of neutrals half way round lap 1 or sat there in 2008 watching the last lap thinking ‘not again’ I can fully understand the feelings F1 can put you through, hell I still remember Mansell’s tyre blow out lol, whoever wins this year will make no difference to me because I feel like ‘been there, got the T-shirt’ but one thing for sure is, this season will go down as one of the greatest F1 has ever seen.

  7. It was obvious they were not aiming to use Bottas tactically because every single person knows it was never going to work. Either there just wasn’t going to a situation where he could, to more likely, he just wasn’t going to.

    I know he got dumped, but you’re a RACING driver! Do your job and race, if not for the team, but for your self respect!

  8. Even Shovlin is lying through his teeth now. It’s a rot.

    1. That’s bad, shovlin used to be honest.

  9. I genuinely don’t think it was to place him closer to Max on the grid. That was never going to work, we all knew Max was going to dispatch him very quickly and Valtteri is great at getting lost in the pack, for whatever reason, him in amongst Alpines and Aston Martins means he stays broadly in amongst Alpines and Aston Martins, he did great at Monza until he stopped making progress, but generally sticking Bottas that low down the grid means he struggles, massively.

    A Bottas starting from 7th was always going to be a much bigger problem for Red Bull, whether it be strategy or just that Max would come across him much later in the race.

    I imagine it’s more to do with analysis, nobody can be certain how much wear Lewis has on the PU, a back to back comparison on two fresh PU’s on high speed circuits will give Merc a better indication on whether, when or where Lewis’ PU is.

    Bottas has been sacrificed again, but not because they stuck him there to hold people up, which he is rubbish at, and was never going to work.

  10. Bottas is not fighting for title.. So they figured great, lets get fresh engine.

    Lewis planned for an easy win during Verstappen and Bottas absence.

    Only thing nobody had forseen was Verstappen P2.

    1. I was kinda hoping for more than “a few points” though and was disappointed with a likely 7th place.

  11. It would be useless anyway, given the toothless racecraft of Bottas. He has a serious difficulty on both defending and attacking for track position.

    Reply moderated
  12. Hard to overtake…
    That’s why verstappen only passed 18 cars I guess.

    1. You know it rained and some stuff happened right?

  13. Keith M Crossley
    28th September 2021, 2:20

    I’m hearing some conflicting arguments over the weekend:
    1. Bottas the Sochi-meister. Big favorite. Bad Toto moving him to the back.
    2. Just impossible to expect Bottas to defend against MV.

    I think that Mercedes needs a more competitive co-driver to partner Lewis.

    1. To: Keith M Crossley, your Item 1. was a first thought for me, considering Bottas’ performance in both practice sessions with his ‘Monza’ engine. What really needs to be explained is the tactical move to change engines at consecutive races.

      Another thought I had at the time was, could one of the fresh engines find a place in Hamilton’s car, thus keeping him out of a potential grid penalty situation for the remainder of the season. I do not know the rules relating to such actions.

      Your last comment is absolutely correct!

      1. Engines allocations are car-specific. I don’t agree that bottas had a hopeless task. Mercedes saw him tear through the pack at monza and said let’s do that again but we don’t have to worry about passing one rbr this time. Except monza Bottas didn’t show up in Russia.

        Hamilton looks like he will take a grid penalty at some point. How he does in that race may settle the title. I don’t see how he does better than 2nd in such a circumstance. Verstappen may have really put one hand on the cup with that outcome.

  14. Can someone explain why bottas didn’t start at the back of the grid? Taking a new engine sends you to the back right? Like verstappen…?

    1. Verstappen serving first engine penalty AND for causing the Monza shunt. Penalty for 2nd engine penalty is less grid places plus he didn’t have a dirty driving penalty to boot, pretty simple.

  15. Mercedes PR is great.

    Reply moderated
  16. Other drivers also had penalties that came after Bottas’ engine change was announced.

  17. I thought Valtteri was fair with Max when they were racing wheel-to-wheel. He didn’t lose any time passing him.

    !
    !
    Eh, Bottas was indeed supposed to be ‘racing’ when that happened: Max losing time passing him was entirely expected! So ‘fair’ for CH is ‘please Max, take my position, I wouldn’t want to hold you up for even a second.’ I presume Horner is being funny…

    1. Even Perez and the AT drivers were like ‘C’mon Valtteri old son, at least go through the pretence of putting up a bit of a defence against Max.’

  18. Only conspiracy mongerers would think it was to hold verstappen back. Bottas job would be to get through the pack ASAP which would have helped verstappen by breaking up packs or drs trains of slower cars. As for getting in his pit window that would be far easier starting p7.

    It was a good move to bank components without ceding position to one redbull, where the car you are sending back is not in the title fight.

  19. Botta’s did the right thing, compensating for playing bowling alley at Hungary. What a sportsman.

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