Should Mercedes Favour Hamilton, they Risk Losing the Championship

Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team) of Finland, Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team) of Great Britain during the Canadian Formula One Grand Prix at Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve on June 11, 2017 in Montreal, Canada.

The 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix gave us two perfect displays of team-work from two title-challenging teams. Ferrari secured a perfect result, despite Sebastian Vettel nursing a wounded car. Kimi Raikkonen was able to resist pressure from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton during the race to play the bridesmaid role in a one-two finish for the Scuderia. But what is clear is that there’s no indication that Mercedes favour Hamilton, and they are right to do that at this stage.

Should Mercedes Favour Hamilton, they Risk Losing the Championship

The reason why Mercedes could push Raikkonen was they also played the team game. Despite radio troubles, Valtteri Bottas moved over to let the faster Hamilton through to try and pressure the second Ferrari. He could not, and duly handed the position back at the end of the race. It was tight, because Max Verstappen was close enough to pounce at the end, but Hamilton did the job perfectly.

This move, while not concluding in the desired result, was perfectly executed by Hamilton, Bottas and Mercedes. Bottas did the right thing by moving over, and Hamilton did the right thing by returning the position. Both showed that they can trust each other, which could be very important as both challenge Vettel for the title.

Yes, it is a three-way title fight. The anticipated duel of the multiple champions which was expected coming into the season has transformed by the second Silver Arrow. Bottas has never not been in this title fight, despite being asked by many journalists as early as round three of this season whether he is a ‘number two’ driver. Pole at that round followed by a cracking victory at the following event vaulted Bottas right back into contention.

In the most recent five races, Bottas has stood on the podium in each of them. His team-mate has two podiums from those five races, as does Vettel and Raikkonen. His form is the strongest of all the drivers at the moment. So why shouldn’t have Hamilton given the place back? It just doesn’t make sense. They had an agreement, and they stuck to it. It’s no different to when Briton David Coulthard handed victory to Finland’s Mika Hakkinen in the 1998 Australian Grand Prix.

Bottas had a slow start to 2017, but it’s a 20-race season. 500 points are available and we are currently in a situation where Bottas is 33 behind Vettel and 19 behind Hamilton with 225 still available. Even beyond looking at the pure results, Bottas’s performances have visibly improved in recent races. It could be argued that he is driving at least at the level Nico Rosberg was in his title-winning season last year.

It almost seems as if the momentum has shifted from Hamilton to Bottas. This would not be the first time this has occurred between team-mates during a title challenge. The situation at Ferrari in 2008 is a good example – Raikkonen started his season strongly while Felipe Massa struggled. But by the final third of the season, Massa had found regular race-winning form and was in a better position than the Finn. Ultimately, Massa missed out on the title by a single point (to Hamilton) but had Ferrari thrown its weight behind Raikkonen earlier in the season, then perhaps Hamilton would’ve had an easier run to the title than he ultimately did.

2010 produced another good example. Two teams had two drivers in contention for much, if not all, of the season. Red Bull had Mark Webber vault into the front in the middle part of the year, and the team opted not to favour the Australian as Vettel was still able to win the championship. Vettel then won three of the final four races of the year (and retired from the other while in the lead) and overhauled both his team-mate and Fernando Alonso to snatch the title, having not led the championship at any other point in the year. A similar situation occurred at McLaren, where Hamilton closed up and overtook Jenson Button during the course of the year.

Where reliability was a significant factor last year, it hasn’t been as much this year between the two Mercedes team-mates. When taking mechanical problems (and loose headrests) into account, both drivers would still have roughly the same gap, which is not much. Yes – Hamilton is ahead currently, but that could very quickly change if Hamilton retires next time out and Bottas wins again. Should that occur, then would Hamilton out of the championship picture?

The three points Hamilton conceded to Bottas could come back to bite him come Abu Dhabi at the end of the season as he could end up two points behind Vettel in the championship. However, such a hypothetical situation is only as relevant as the possibility of Bottas winning the championship from Vettel by two points. Should that occur, the switch-around would prove to be a pivotal moment in deciding the victor of the championship. That is why this the outcome of the use of team-orders was correct.

This issue does not affect Ferrari. At 86 points behind his team-mate, Raikkonen’s championship chances are beyond slim. That massive gap is not all the Finn’s own doing, as being taken out by Bottas (somewhat ironically) on a couple of occasions and questionable strategy calls has cost him a huge chunk of points. To a degree, it’s a comparable situation to the one in 2008. However on this occasion, Raikkonen’s team-mate currently is driving exceptionally well and these issues have come into play earlier in the season, as opposed to later. At this point, it is likely that Ferrari will favour Vettel, if they are not doing so already.

There would be possible situations where favouring Hamilton may in fact compromise him. Take a situation such as the Russian Grand Prix for example. Bottas started excellently and brilliantly resisted both Ferraris to secure his maiden win. Hamilton meanwhile finished a lonely, distant fourth. Hamilton lost six points to Vettel in that race. If in a situation where Hamilton is the favoured driver, and this has a negative effect on Bottas’ performances, he may find himself losing at least ten points to Vettel in the event of a Ferrari 1-2 which could turn to more should Red Bull’s upturn in form continue. It’s simple mathematics. By beating both Ferraris on one of his ‘notorious off-days’, Hamilton’s team-mate is actually doing him a massive favour.

Mercedes’ approach of allowing their two drivers to go at it is fine. Teams have won and lost championships through this method before, so they can go about it as they like. The approach Ferrari is taking has resulted in championships both won and lost too, so they also can do as they please. Hamilton and Bottas aren’t running each other off the road. They aren’t hiding secrets from each other or publicly slamming the opposite side of the garage. It’s actually quite the contrary, which has been rare between team-mates in recent years.

There are far too many points remaining on the table for Bottas to be ruled out of this championship yet, especially given his consistent form. This battle, which hopefully will last until the final round of the season, should continue to ebb and flow after the summer break. Reliability, collisions, loose headrests or whatever may result in one Mercedes driver being taken out of contention, but it is way too early to tell whether that will occur just yet. However, as it stands, we are witnessing a truly epic battle between a pair of Silver Arrows and the Prancing Horse.
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