Is it time for team orders at Mercedes?
The Bahrain Grand Prix was another fascinating chapter in the unfolding 2017 championship fight between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton.
The German’s desert victory put him atop the drivers championship standings with a seven-point advantage over the Briton while the sport’s 18 other drivers languish a distant 30 points from Vettel’s lofty early-season standard.
Ferrari now holds a similarly slim points margin over Mercedes in the constructors standings too, with the two powerhouses separated by three points courtesy of Sunday’s win.
But aside from the blockbuster fight for victory in 2017, most interesting about the Bahrain Grand Prix and its extrapolated meaning for the rest of the season is that it can be described without reference to any other driver — including Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Räikkönen.
Mercedes’s and Ferrari’s *other* drivers played minor roles at Sahkir, which is especially disappointing considering Bottas claimed his first F1 pole position this weekend.
Indeed the most influence Bottas had on Sunday’s proceedings was with his slow first-stint pace — admittedly due to a team problem setting tyre pressure — which allowed Ferrari to undercut his race lead with an early stop for Vettel and ultimately win the race.
Doubly disappointing for Bottas was that his most significant input thereafter was to twice move aside for Hamilton to give the Briton a chance to chase down Vettel.
Meanwhile Kimi Räikkönen, who after three rounds is fast becoming Ferrari’s forgotten driver, after two typically unimpressive first stints livened up towards the end of the race as he chased down Bottas’s podium place — but even this brief excitement occurred 22 seconds behind the battle for the lead.
The disparity between teammates at the sport’s leading constructors gives the season a fascinating complexion. Assuming Vettel and Hamilton continue trading wins, Räikkönen and Bottas will become bit-players — their points hauls will decide the constructors championship, but their performances will be potential annoyances to Sebastian and Lewis in the fight for the lead.
For Ferrari the headache will chiefly be the former — ensuring Räikkönen, who has been by far the worst performer of the top four drivers to date, scores enough points to keep Ferrari in the constructors title race.
However, the trouble is trickier for Mercedes. Bottas is quicker than Räikkönen, but only by enough to get in the way of the top two — he couldn’t compete with Hamilton in Bahrain despite starting from pole, which ultimately deprived Mercedes of victory and dropped it to second in the constructors standings.
As a result the team had no choice but to force Bottas aside in the race to help Hamilton pick up the pieces.
“It’s an awful call you need to make,” team boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports after the race. “But after a certain stage you have to decide: are you losing the race or are you making a call that is not a nice one?”
The issue going forward is Mercedes’s longstanding preference for equality between its drivers after three seasons managing Hamilton and Nico Rosberg. Whereas between 2014 and 2016 Mercedes the constructors title was guaranteed and the drivers title was fought exclusively in-house, in 2017 Ferrari is contending for both championships, in part because all the Scuderia’s resources will inevitably end up behind Vettel’s most credible title bid.
Faced with Ferrari’s performance parity, Mercedes will be forced to choose between allowing Hamilton and Bottas to take points off each other, with knock-on effects for the team’s own points tally, and backing Hamilton as the faster driver to spearhead both campaigns.
“I’d make that decision tonight, I’m afraid,” Sky Sports pundit Pat Symonds said after speaking to Wolff. “That’s not to say they’re not going to allow them to race — of course they are — but the upper hand must be given to Lewis now.
“It’s early in the season, but they’ve got a hard championship to fight, and sentiment has to come out of this now.”
It’s a difficult decision to make so early in the year, but with the championship narrative already set as a straight fight between Ferrari and Mercedes, a fourth-straight championship will be a surer prospect if the Silver Arrows competes on equal terms with the Scuderia.
Wolff, however, was unconvinced.
“I don’t want to even discuss it yet, because it’s not fair towards Valtteri,” he said. “It’s a very tough call. I don’t want to make it yet.”
But to extrapolate Wolff’s own decision-making from the race, after a certain stage you have to decide: are you losing the championship or are you making a call that is not a nice one?