“If Lewis had let Nico go, Nico could have won the race with a different strategy.”
So said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes F1 team CEO, addressing the team orders row that was one of the main taking points of Sunday’s Grand Prix.
Lewis Hamilton was asked by his team to let Nico Rosberg through with 24 laps to go in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix and didn’t heed the call. Hamilton was on a long final stint on medium tyres, not needing to stop again, Rosberg on a three stop strategy had another stop to make.
To be clear, it is normal practice in modern F1 to let a team mate by if you are two stopping and he is three stopping; we see it all the time. This is not exactly a team order, it’s more of an agreement between the team and its drivers, a protocol.
It happens usually when a team splits the strategies, especially common when the situation is unclear as to which is the best route to go – on a messy complicated day, like Sunday, with rain and safety cars – and splitting strategies offers the best chance of getting at least one ideal outcome.
This was the situation with Mercedes in Hungary. Hamilton had taken new soft tyres at the first stop, Rosberg used softs. Hamilton was able to get to lap 39 before stopping again, which put him into the window to take the medium tyres and run to the end of the race.
Rosberg had to stop on lap 32, too soon to do anything other than take softs again, committing him to making another stop before the end of the 70 lap race.
Where team orders have been controversial in the past, is where teams have asked drivers on the same strategy to move over.
What was controversial about Sunday was that the matter involves two drivers fighting each other – and no-be else – for a world championship. In that context eery point counts and it is debatable whether that was a reasonable thing to ask Hamilton. Also the fact that it was his engineer who asked him, rather than the management figures, Wolff himself or Paddy Lowe, undermined the power of the command
Rosberg had 14 point lead before the race and now it’s down to 11 points.
So you can see why Hamilton was reluctant, even though he knew that this was one of those circumstances which the team had agreed earlier in the season, the drivers would be asked to move over for.
“I was thinking: ‘I’m in this race, I don’t understand why I have to let him past,’” Hamilton said. “I’m sure the team did it for the right reasons.
“If I had let him past when they asked me, he would have caught me with a couple of laps to go, for sure.”
Mercedes F1 team chairman Niki Lauda backed Hamilton up, ” He did the right thing ignoring the order. We will forget this episode in a hurry.”
For his part Rosberg said, “I didn’t ask for team orders, it was the team (who made the call).”
Many fans here have pointed out that Hamilton held up Rosberg for nine laps and that wrecked Rosberg’s three stop strategy, meaning that he wasn’t able to make the most of his fresher tyres and challenge Daniel Ricciardo for the win at the end. Others have argued that it was wrong of Mercedes to ask Hamilton and they should have let the strategies play out with no outside assistance.
Toto Wolff now accepts that this was the wrong card to play and clearly there have been behind the scenes conversations where it has been agreed that in the interests of fairness, they should let the drivers get on with it, even if they are on different strategies because the team has decided to operate it that way.
“I don’t want to play the vicious general and say ‘ you must adhere to the rules’ – we could have come over the radio in a harder way, Paddy (Lowe, Mercedes operations chief) could have come over radio, but he didn’t and it was because it was very difficult to judge what was right and wrong at that stage of the race, ” said Wolff.
“We will not have that situation again because we will try to learn. We cannot expect the drivers in the second half of the season to move over for their main competitor.”
“We need to analyse how we ended up there and we need to again discuss the racing between the two. It is getting intense.
“You let your team-mate by and he wins and you lose another eight or 10 points, you damage your own campaign.”
Mercedes are keen to avoid accusations of favouritism towards Rosberg, the German driver in the team.
* Watch out for our UBS Race Strategy Report tomorrow here on JA on F1, where we will analyse the decisions and the behind the scenes situations which made Sunday’s race, with help and insight from some of the leading teams’ strategists.