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Jolyon Palmer column: Why Mercedes were right to use team orders

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Nobody likes team orders in Formula 1. All of us want to see the most effective driver on your day, usually the one who deserves it, take the win.

That’s much more the case when a team order helps out the championship leader and makes the ultimate five races less interesting to watch, at the trouble of a driver who has yet to have a victory in 2018.

That’s precisely what happened in Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix. Mercedes’decision to impose team orders leaves Lewis Hamilton with a 50-point advantage over rival Sebastian Vettel, after Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas let him right through to win.

It had been a controversial moment for Mercedes, and Bottas was heard questioning it on the air afterwards, but it is a move I fully understand in the context of attempting to win this year’s drivers’title. Around it absolutely was a shame for Bottas, and for the race, it absolutely was well-known thing to do.

Bottas clearly deserved the win, or at the least a good crack at it. He took a fantastic pole, made a superb start and led on merit through the pit stops, and was controlling the pace after that.

An outcry – but why?

In any normal situation, that could have been that and Bottas could have won the race.

After Mercedes decided to order him to let Hamilton through, there clearly was a large outcry.

Many fans were clearly not amused that Mercedes had’rigged’the race, while they found it, to let Hamilton win. Some were comparing it to incidents from days gone by that resulted in huge criticism of the parties involved.

People raised the notorious incident in Austria in 2002, when Rubens Barrichello taken care of immediately an order to let Michael Schumacher right through to win on the final lap.

In my view, Russia 2018 was nothing can beat that, and the actions of team boss Toto Wolff and Mercedes were fully justified.

Lewis Hamilton finishes ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas in Sochi

Lewis Hamilton finishes ahead of team-mate Valtteri Bottas in Sochi

Had Hamilton finished second, he could have had a 43-point lead over Vettel rather than 50. Forty-three points seems a lot. It sounds such as a big number.

But there are 25 points for a gain these days. So that it that may be slashed back off in just a few races.

If Hamilton was to truly have a retirement for whatever reason in Japan this weekend and Vettel was to win, then your margin at the very top could have been 18 points, and the fight could be straight back on. Twenty-five points is an infinitely more comfortable cushion, both psychologically and mathematically.

Mercedes’reliability in 2010 has not been bulletproof. Look back at Austria, where they had a dual retirement, or Germany, where Hamilton retired from qualifying with a hydraulic failure.

And whilst it seemed Ferrari weren’t close on pace to Mercedes in Sochi, at the least in qualifying, it was just two races ago in Monza that Ferrari had the fastest car and locked out a one-two on the grid. At the race before that in Belgium, Vettel won and Hamilton had no reply to the pace of the Ferrari.

Why it’s different to Austria 2002

I will understand the frustration of the fans. Why do I do believe Mercedes did the proper thing on Sunday and Ferrari the wrong thing back in Austria in 2002?

The difference between the 2 races is that Austria was completely unnecessary – and badly handled.

For a start, Barrichello led until the ultimate straight, and then slowed on the method of the line. It looked bad, and was a terrible solution to end the race. The crowd booed the drivers on the podium and everybody involved was embarrassed – Schumacher even pulled Barrichello on to the very best step of the podium, and stood on the 2nd step himself.

But even most importantly, it absolutely was completely unnecessary.

Austria was just the sixth grand prix of a 17-race season. Schumacher had already won four of the prior five and had double the points of his nearest rival, Williams driver Juan Pablo Montoya. And Ferrari had taken five out of six pole positions, and clearly had the fastest car.

Out from the 11 races after Austria, Schumacher was either first or second in most single one. He scored nearly triple the amount of points of third-place man Montoya in the championship and almost double Barrichello’s. Team orders in that instance were ludicrous.

Another incident that caused huge controversy was at the 2010 German Grand Prix, when Ferrari used team orders to offer Fernando Alonso a win over Felipe Massa.

That was a different case. For Ferrari, it had been imperative that Alonso won that race. He was their only title contender and he had lots of ground to create up on the leaders at that time in the season. The decision could have won him the title later that year had the team not smudged their strategy at the ultimate race.

On that basis, Hockenheim 2010 was much more understandable than Austria 2002. The difference in that case was that, in 2010, team orders were banned.

This is exactly why Massa received the famously coded team radio message: “Fernando is faster than you.” And that’s why there clearly was outrage, and Ferrari received a $100,000 fine.

Fortunately for them, the result stood and everyone could understand the reason why for doing it.

Rubens Barrichello (front) led his team-mate Michael Schumacher for the majority of the race in Austria in 2002

Rubens Barrichello (front) led his team-mate Michael Schumacher for the majority of the race in Austria in 2002

Why team orders can be in F1

team orders have already been section of F1 for so long as it’s existed as a sport, and they can be found in many forms.

Another example was Malaysia in 2013, and Red Bull’s famous “Multi 21” incident – a reference to the coded message the team gave their drivers effectively calling off the race and meaning Mark Webber would beat Sebastian Vettel.

This really is fairly common practice for teams who’ve drivers in both leading positions heading into the ultimate stages of a race. At that time, the bosses just want the drivers to create the vehicle home and hold position, guaranteeing the team a perfect result.

Think back once again to Damon Hill’s win for Jordan in the epic 1998 Belgium Grand Prix, or Fernando Alonso and Hamilton for McLaren in Monaco 2007, as well as Hamilton and Bottas in the closing stages of the year’s German Grand Prix.

For some, this really is more understandable, or acceptable. Don’t be fooled, though. This can be a team order that could define a competition in likewise way as Mercedes did on Sunday. It effectively declares the result, and could mean that the faster driver on the day does not win.

That was highlighted precisely in Malaysia 2013, as Vettel defied Red Bull’s team orders. He passed Webber on the right track in an exquisite bit of driving by both drivers, running side-by-side through a number of corners.

It brought what could have been a processional last 13 laps of the Grand Prix into a thrilling conclusion and gave the fans exactly what they wanted. A wheel-to-wheel fight for the win.

And yet Vettel was vilified for it.

I’d bet that most of the same people who have been so critical of Vettel in that race for ignoring team orders could have been willing Bottas to do the same in Sochi on Sunday.

In 2013, Red Bull’s team orders were seen as acceptable and yet in 2018 Mercedes, with the title on the line, are hated by many for it.

Onus is on Bottas to stop it

Valtteri Bottas (left) is third in the F1 World Championship standings, on 186 points, while Lewis Hamilton sits on 306

Valtteri Bottas (left) is third in the F1 World Championship standings, on 186 points, while Lewis Hamilton sits on 306

The truth of F1 is that it is a group sport. The constructors’championship might define the prize money the teams receive, however the drivers’championship matters hugely in their mind as well. It’s what fundamentally motivates the stars of the sport – drivers aren’t bothered by a constructors’championship; they are racing for themselves, to win titles.

The reality is that Bottas can’t be champion this year and Hamilton can. And that’s why Sunday unfolded the way it did.

Drivers only really end up getting’number 2’status if they cannot realistically fight for the title and their team-mate can.

Ultimately, Bottas is in this situation because, while he was very good in Russia, he’s been too far off Hamilton over the summertime races and has dropped over 100 points behind.

His predecessor Nico Rosberg never had a group orders debacle with Lewis Hamilton while he was generally able to maintain the fight together with his team-mate on the course of the year. And on the occasion he dropped away, in 2015, Ferrari weren’t in a powerful position to mount any sort of proper challenge like they are this year.

That’s what Bottas must aim for next year, when he will begin from scratch and have another fair crack at it.

Hamilton could be the star in the team. Winning a fifth championship keeps him motivated, hungry for more and increases his value to sponsors and partners of the team as well, thus generating more revenue.

In a long time, nobody will care an excessive amount of about who won the 2018 constructors’championship. They will only look at who won the drivers’championship. And that’s why Mercedes were right to do what they did.

Hamilton, consequently of experiencing three more wins than Vettel, includes a two-race cushion in the championship.

To any extent further Mercedes should feel more confident, and might let Bottas take the win he’s deserved should that opportunity arise again.

 

 

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