Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and their teams are leaving no points-scoring opportunities unexploited in their fight for the championship.Sergio Perez has been quick to let Verstappen by and Valtteri Bottas has done the same for Hamilton. They have even delayed their rivals’ drivers when needed, while staying within the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable.
But while the involvement of the title contenders’ team mates is to be expected, drivers from other teams playing similar roles is potentially more controversial.
In theory, each driver is out there to put the interest of their team and themselves first. In practice, the relationships between teams blurs the lines of where those interests lie. And the nature of modern Formula 1 racing means drivers can have a significant effect on rivals’ races through subtle actions which needn’t be as obvious as moving off-line to defend their position.
The Russian Grand Prix provided an example. Early in the race Bottas, who started 16th, caught Pierre Gasly, whose AlphaTauri team is owned by Red Bull. Verstappen soon appeared behind the pair of them.
In short order Verstappen overtook Bottas and, two laps later, Gasly as well. But Bottas never found a way around the AlphaTauri before making his first pit stop on the 28th lap. Did Gasly put up more of a fight against the Mercedes than the car from his sister team?
The messages between Gasly and race engineer Pierre Hamelin indicate his priorities involved more than just his own progress. As he accelerated out of turn 12 on lap eight Gasly was told “Max is not our race”; the Red Bull driver swept by him at the next corner.
While Gasly was told not to race Verstappen, and instead try to use follow the Red Bull past the cars ahead of him, he didn’t get a similar message regarding Bottas. This was despite the Mercedes being at least as quick the Red Bull (indeed during the weekend Red Bull said Mercedes were faster):
|4||Hamelin||You have Bottas behind you now, Bottas behind. Leclerc [unclear] six.|
|4||Hamelin||We are okay at the moment. Okay at the moment.|
|5||Hamelin||Okay Bottas has got DRS behind.|
|5||Hamelin||And you can consider a bit of lift-off also turn 10.|
|5||Hamelin||There’s a very tight pack in front of you. They are all behind Raikkonen.|
|5||Hamelin||Still very close behind.|
|6||Hamelin||Only place Leclerc is faster is turn 10.|
|6||Hamelin||Verstappen passes Bottas|
Okay now we have Max behind and Bottas behind him. Direct behind is Max.
|7||Hamelin||Obviously Bottas is still very close behind Max.|
|8||Gasly||How close is Bottas and Max?|
|8||Hamelin||Very, very close. A couple of tenths.|
|8||Hamelin||Bottas is now five tenths behind Max. And Max is not our race.|
|9||Hamelin||Verstappen passes Gasly|
Okay Pierre let’s try to follow him through now.
|9||Hamelin||And Max is 1.1 now.|
|10||Hamelin||Bottas has got DRS. And there’s a big fight in front between Max, Vettel and Leclerc.|
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Asked by RaceFans whether he had been trying to help Verstappen, Gasly said: “It wasn’t our race. There was more advantage for us from him overtaking the cars ahead than trying to fight him.” That may be so but it’s hard to argue the same wasn’t also true for Bottas.
Gasly expended little effort keeping Bottas behind. Overtaking is often so difficult in Formula 1 that a leading driver doesn’t necessarily have to work hard to defend from a quicker rival. Waving a car through therefore can hand a significant advantage: Verstappen was 12 seconds ahead of Bottas by the time he pitted.
While drivers helping their team mates out in this fashion is a typical sight, it’s less common to see it between drivers from different teams. It does happen, however, and not just involving Red Bull: At the Monaco Grand Prix in 2018 Mercedes junior driver Esteban Ocon let Lewis Hamilton pass him when he emerged from the pits.
Ocon’s explanation was much the same as Gasly’s three years later. “It was useless for us to lose time against him,” he said. But it was doubtful Ocon was going to lose any time keeping his rival behind at a track as narrow as Monaco. Indeed, letting Hamilton past cost him over a second.
Formula 1 is notionally contested by 10 rival teams but examples like these show the distinction between competitors is not always clear. There are lines of influence between teams which aren’t necessarily as clear as two outfits sharing the same owner.
Mercedes has one junior driver, George Russell, who earlier this season described Hamilton and Bottas as being team mates in the same sense as his fellow Williams driver Nicholas Latifi. How is he going to respond if Verstappen and Hamilton (who we now know will be his actual team mate next year) appear in his mirrors? Similarly Ocon, who drives for Renault-powered Alpine, remains contracted to Mercedes.
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Next year one-quarter of the field will have links to Red Bull in some shape or form. In addition to its two drivers and the AlphaTauri pair Alexander Albon will return at Williams. Although his Red Bull contract will be suspended for that season, he will remain on a long-term deal with the team and is expected to continue wearing Red Bull colours.
It’s not just an issue for the title contenders either. Ferrari has junior drivers at Alfa Romeo (Antonio Giovinazzi) and Haas (Mick Schumacher). Between them Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari may only account for six of the 20 drivers but their influence will cover the majority of the grid next year.
If each of those three teams has a contender in the title fight next year F1 could resemble recent DTM seasons, with each leading driver able to rely on several others aligned to the same manufacturer for help. The “push him out” controversy at the Red Bull Ring a few years ago showed the extremes one team in that series was prepared to go in its pursuit of the championship.
How far are drivers allowed to help rivals from different teams? This is a tricky area to police. The International Sporting Code forbids “manipulation of competitions” which is defined as “an arrangement, act or intentional omission aimed at improperly altering the result or running of a competition in order to remove all or part of the unpredictable nature of said competition, aiming to obtain an undue advantage for oneself or others.”
While the FIA saw no problem with Ocon’s actions in Monaco or Gasly’s in Sochi, how much further could they push the rules while staying on the right side of the law?
“I’d have to have a look at it on a case-by-case basis as it arises,” said Formula 1 race director Michael Masi when asked by RaceFans. “I wouldn’t like to pre-empt different things of what may or may not happen through the field.”
Following the 1997 European Grand Prix, Williams and McLaren were investigated by the FIA over allegations they colluded to decide the result of the race. Williams driver Jacques Villeneuve, nursing a damaged car to the chequered flag on his way to winning the world championship, allowed the two McLaren drivers to overtake him.
The World Motor Sport Council ruled “West McLaren Mercedes and Williams Grand Prix Engineering were able to show that there was no arrangement to fix the results of the 1997 European Grand Prix.
“For the future, in order to avoid possible misunderstandings and ambiguities, the World Motor Sport Council recommended that all radio transmissions between drivers and their pits should be freely accessible by journalists and the public.”
However Masi said this 24-year-old case would notnecessarily set a precedent for how a similar scenario would be handled today. “We’re talking ’97, a very long time ago,” he said. “So I think you’d have to look at it all on the merits of what’s there, what happens, and investigate it if necessary, on the basis of what may or may not have occurred.”
With seven races remaining there are just two points between Hamilton and Verstappen at the top of the table. The winner may be decided not just by who is the quickest driver and which team has built the best car, but also who wields the most influence throughout the grid.
Quotes: Dieter Rencken
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