Lewis Hamilton extended his lead in the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship standings to a mammoth 50 points over title rival Sebastian Vettel by claiming victory at Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix.
His celebrations were next to non-existent, however, with his win coming at the hands of Mercedes leadership who instructed his teammate Valtteri Bottas to hand the lead to the Englishman.
Hamilton has been explicit in his desire for the Mercdedes team not to employ team orders and was disappointed at their use in Russia where Bottas narrowly had his measure.
“It is definitely a win on my list of wins that I am least proud of,” he after the race. “The strangest day I can remember in my career. I want to win the right way. As racing drivers we exist to win; if you tell us we can’t, it is like you are taking our life away. I would never wish it on someone else and I would never ask for it ever. I made sure in a meeting that they knew this is not how I want to win.”
While the four-time World Champion may protest the use of team orders – tactics which have been legal for years in the sport – he didn’t exercise his own discretion to hand the place back to Bottas when it was safe to do so and took the win regardless. Read into that what you will…
The appropbrium heaped on Mercedes for its decision by fans and insiders was as unsurprising as the team’s decision in and of itself. Team orders are allowed and Mercedes, aware of the threat Ferrari could still pose over the remainder of the season, took advantage at a circuit where it held a clear advantage over the Scuderia.
While an unedifying way for a race’s outcome to be decided, it is understandable. With Vettel finishing third behind Bottas and claiming 15 points to Hamilton’s 25, the Englishman extended his title lead over the German to 50 points.
“It’s deflating for drivers and for a team but there is a harsh reality also,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff said in justifying the decision. “On a day like this you can extend the lead by seven points more in a championship that has been very tough and difficult at times, so you have to take it.”
Mercedes’ hand was more or less forced after a serious challenge mounted by Vettel’s Ferrari and the team’s tacticians. The Silver Arrows had locked out the front row in Saturday’s qualifying session, with pole-sitter Bottas and Hamilton running an almost choreographed sprint to Turn 2 to deny Vettel a shot at splitting the pair on the opening lap.
Stuck behind Hamilton, Ferrari called in Vettel in the hopes of undercutting the #44 Mercedes in the pit stops. Mercedes responded a lap later, but Vettel had just done enough to slot ahead of Hamilton as he exited the pit lane.
Hamilton had to push and he pressured Vettel into a lock-up at Turn 13. On the next lap he used DRS to slipstream the Ferrari on the run to Turn 2, but Vettel aggressively chopped him under braking for the right-hander and forced Hamilton to take avoiding action. Undeterred, Hamilton responded instantly and kept his foot in through the long Turn 3 left-hander before diving up the inside at Turn 4 to reclaim the place.
His attack on Vettel had stressed his tyres and with the German still a potential threat Mercedes made the difficult call to swap Bottas and Hamilton and move the Finn into the role of rear gunner.
Bottas – who could well have been in the championship mix himself had he not lost certain wins in Azerbaijan and Austria through no fault of his own – was understandably disappointed. He is yet to win this year and after claiming pole position and holding the race lead, he dutifully switched places for the sake of his teammate.
“Lewis is fighting for the drivers’ championship and I’m not,” he later acknowledged. “From the team’s point of view it was the ideal result today. Maybe not ideal for me but for the team, yes.”
Even Vettel, himself the beneficiary of (at times controversially implemented) team orders in his Red Bull Racing and Ferrari days, supported Mercedes’ decision and defended its two drivers in the post-race FIA Press Conference.
“All the questions [you’re asking] – I know you guys love controversy so therefore ask naughty questions to them as individuals, but I think in the position they are it’s a no-brainer what they did today. Maybe not all the questions are justified,” he said in their defence.
Rather ignored – and sadly so – in this drama were some standout performances from the sport’s next generation of stars, most notably Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc.
Verstappen started from the back row of the grid thanks to engine, gearbox and yellow-flag penalties, but on the occasion of his 21st birthday he gave his Red Bull Racing team and fans a drive to remember. The Dutch driver scythed through the field in the early laps, passing other drivers with ease to the point that he was in the lead of the race after the frontrunners had pitted. He held on ahead of Bottas and Hamilton until eventually making his sole pit stop, emerging in fifth place which he held until the chequered flag. Had he have started the race further forward and not been the victim of grid penalties largely beyond his control, he could well have had a spoiling role in the race’s outcome.
The other driver whose performance deserves celebration is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc, who once again justified Ferrari’s decision to hire him for the 2019 season. The Monégasque driver barely featured in the highlights reel of the race, but laid down another impressive marker with a strong drive to seventh place, still finishing on the lead lap. He had struggled in Friday practice with set-up issues but by Saturday seemed transformed and qualified a fine seventh-fastest. In the race he produced a brave move on Turn 3 around the outside of Kevin Magnussen – the driver with the widest car on this year’s grid – and pulled clear. Having never driven before at Sochi, a track with a poor reputation for overtaking at best, this was another drive than belied his tender age.
|FORMULA 1 2018 VTB RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (53 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||53||1:27:25.181|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||53||+ 2.545|
|3.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||53||+ 7.487|
|4.||Kimi Räikkönen||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||53||+ 16.543|
|5.||Max Verstappen||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||53||+ 31.016|
|6.||Daniel Ricciardo||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||53||+ 1:20.451|
|7.||Charles Leclerc||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||53||+ 1:38.390|
|8.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||52||1 lap behind|
|9.||Esteban Ocon||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||52||1 lap behind|
|10.||Sergio Pérez||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||52||1 lap behind|
|11.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||52||1 lap behind|
|12.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||52||1 lap behind|
|13.||Marcus Ericsson||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||52||1 lap behind|
|14.||Fernando Alonso||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||52||1 lap behind|
|15.||Lance Stroll||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||52||1 lap behind|
|16.||Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||51||2 laps behind|
|17.||Carlos Sainz Jr||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||51||2 laps behind|
|18.||Sergey Sirotkin||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||51||2 laps behind|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps|
|DNF.||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||4||Brakes|
|DNF.||Brendon Hartley||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||4||Brakes|
|Fastest Lap||Team / Entry||Lap||Time|
|Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||50||1:35.861|
Images via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team