For many watching Sunday’s Russia Grand Prix, the only surprise was that Valtteri Bottas seemed surprised at the end of it.
Judging by his glum expression, whatever was said in the Mercedes pre-race briefing did not include a plan to cover the way the race eventually unfolded. On a weekend when Mercedes continued to relentlessly raise their game, the reigning champions only made two significant errors; delaying Lewis Hamilton’s pit stop and not including such scenario in the many likely to affect Valtteri’s race.
You had to feel for Bottas. He had done everything he could: a perfect pole lap to maintain never having been out-qualified by a teammate in Sochi; a clean start; leading comfortably and enjoying the accompanying status of the favourable pit stop call.
How was he to know that the botched strategy for his teammate would mean Hamilton blistering his left rear early doors when pulling off that aggressive move to get back in front of Sebastian Vettel? The first clue at the end of the pit stop sequence was red in Valtteri’s mirrors rather than silver.
Even then, Bottas had every reason to believe he was going for a morale-boosting first win in a season that had already seen seven for his lauded teammate. Back up Vettel towards Hamilton? No problem. Go after Max Verstappen and try to overtake the leading Red Bull? I’ll give it a go. Move aside and let Lewis through? If you say so. Lewis isn’t handing the place back now that Vettel’s challenge has been dealt with? What the?! (Or the equivalent in fuming Finnish).
Bottas clearly had in mind a similar sequence in Hungary last year when Hamilton allowed his teammate back in front on the final lap. But that was round 11 and it wasn’t for the lead, the differential in July 2017 being three points instead the seven in question on Sunday as this season rushes towards its climax.
You could argue that if Hamilton keeps going at this rate, a mere seven points will appear an irrelevance at season’s end and not worth the negative publicity currently being directed towards Mercedes. Judging by reaction across the social media board, however, such an assessment has been exceeded by the broad view that team play is in F1’s DNA, something Mercedes – and Ferrari – has fully understood for 60 years and more.
Mercedes did not have a designated one-two when Juan Manuel Fangio and Stirling Moss raced for the Silver Arrows in the mid-1950s. But both understood that if ‘REG’ (short for ‘Regulare’) was signalled from the pits, they had to hold position. Moss says he was only instructed once to let Fangio win (in a sportscar race) and did so without question. He was racing for Mercedes-Benz and not for himself.
Ferrari’s implementation of team orders over the decades has been, shall we say, not as consistent and, at times, damaging. The outrage following the last lap in Austria 2002 has been widely quoted – as Rubens Barrichello, having started from pole and led all the way, was instructed to let Michael Schumacher through. Apart from a complete absence of subtly, this was in the early stages of a season in which Schumacher had won four of the previous five races. With Ferrari’s nearest rival sometimes struggling to stay on the same lap, the title was never in doubt.
Less so today, even allowing for Hamilton’s 50-point lead and Mercedes painstakingly eroding the claim that Ferrari has marginally the better car. It should be no surprise that Mercedes did what they did even if the only good thing to say about the dull and unsmiling podium was that it made the visiting President Putin look entirely at home.