Russia 2018 is not a repeat of Austria 2002
The spectre of Austria 2002 continues to hang over every instance of teams employing orders. When Ferrari made Rubens Barrichello move over for Michael Schumacher it was a decision of such cynical overkill it rightly remains infamous. At that point the season was only five races old, Schumacher had won four of them and had twice as many points as his nearest challenger Juan Pablo Montoya. It was simply unnecessary. Team orders were banned afterwards but it was a rule that proved unenforceable and since 2011, they have been legal. In Russia Mercedes’ decision to make Valtteri Bottas cede his place, and the win, to Lewis Hamilton was not what anyone wanted to see but in what has always been a team sport it was, for them at least, necessary and understandable – incomparable to 2002. Hamilton enjoys a strong advantage but he remains only a DNF from becoming vulnerable again, making every point vital.
Bottas deserved more clarity
That Mercedes’ decision to enforce team orders was not pre-ordained however seems clear. Team principal Toto Wolff admitted he could not sleep on Saturday night, disturbed by memories of what happened in Austria 16 years ago. The team had discussed options before the race but ultimately appeared to be happy to let their drivers compete. Had they intended a switch, pitting Hamilton first for the undercut on Bottas would have been the simplest method and least damaging in terms of publicity. But they did not do so, stuck to their plan and were forced to take the hard decision when Hamilton’s blistering tyres threatened his position. Bottas admitted he had not been expecting the call and found it confusing. Mercedes should be lauded for letting them race but perhaps simply making it clear to the Finn that he would be expected to move over before the race began might have made it easier on him.
Ferrai left to rue what might have been
Mercedes’ ruthless and clear use of orders was an object lesson to the Scuderia, who were hesitant and ambiguous in instructing Kimi Raikkonen to move over for Sebastian Vettel in Germany. As things stand, Ferrari will not be in a position to use them again. Raikkonen looks in no danger of exerting any influence on the fight at the front and even less likely to be amenable to orders now his time with the team is up at the end of this season. Worse still, having soundly beaten their rivals in their strongholds of Canada, Britain and Spa, Ferrari were badly off the pace in Russia. Having repeatedly taken a lead through upgrades across the season, their new package at Sochi was no match for Mercedes. On this form a dispirited Vettel has little hope of taking the fight to Hamilton. He and Ferrari must rue the races that slipped away since Silverstone, when they had a clear advantage.
Mercedes move to another level
In contrast, Mercedes have found just the right time to take their car to a new high. They too brought upgrades to Sochi, proving the development war remains in full flight, and it appears their work has really paid off. They were exposed by exit speed from slow corners at Spa, but having acknowledged the problem and looked for mechanical solutions their exit-traction out of slower corners appeared to have improved radically in Russia. This gives them greater speed on following straights, such as the start-finish run after turn 18 at Sochi. It was here Hamilton was able to close and attack Vettel. He made it stick through turn four having gone round the outside of turn three, an indication that perhaps they have found more from their engine, to match Ferrari’s previous advantage. Mercedes are proving a finely honed, relentless force, able to draw on the experience and cohesion of the past four seasons of dominance.
Leclerc looks a star of the future
One positive for Ferrari from Russia was another superb performance from their new signing for 2019, Charles Leclerc. The 20-year-old was barely on the radar during the race but, in taking seventh place for Sauber, laid down another marker for what Ferrari can expect next season. What was most impressive was how Leclerc turned his weekend around. He had struggled in both the first two practice sessions, unable to find the set-up and control he needed. Yet he worked at it and by FP3 was dialled-in. He converted that to seventh in qualifying and then in the race produced a breathtaking move round the outside of turn three to overtake Kevin Magnussen and maintained his place to be the first home behind the big six. He has never driven at Sochi before and his progress over the weekend demonstrated a maturity beyond his years.