“I think honestly as a racing driver it’s maybe the worst thing you want to hear (an order to move over for your team mate).
“For sure I did it because there was potential. Lewis could challenge Sebastian. In the end it didn’t happen but the team tried which I completely understand but personally it is tough but that’s life. I didn’t have enough pace today and we need to find the reasons why that was.”
The words of a rueful Valtteri Bottas after the Bahrain Grand Prix reflecting on the call from Mercedes to let Lewis Hamilton through into second place on Lap 47, with ten laps to go to the end.
A week earlier in China, Ferrari had declined to do the same with Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel lost time to Hamilton and eventually had to pass Raikkonen on track to make progress. Ferrari’s policy is not to issue an order early in the season – until one driver has a clearly superior mathematical chance of the title. Few in the F1 paddock felt that this was the right thing to do in China.
So what was behind this decision from Mercedes in the third race of the season and does it cast Bottas in the Felipe Massa or David Coulthard mould of the number two driver who moves over when requested, never to become world champion?
Coulthard obeyed an order in Australia 1998, after Mika Hakkinen had misheard a radio call and pitted in error. McLaren boss Ron Dennis, feeling that Hakkinen was the more likely driver to be able to beat Michael Schumacher to the world title, ordered Coulthard to move over, saying that Hakkinen was rightfully the leader due to a problem he suffered. Coulthard arguably never recovered from that to be able to mount a career like Nico Rosberg’s where he eventually created an opportunity to win a world championship.
So is Bottas heading the same way?
A team order such as was issued on Sunday is not only the worst thing for a driver to hear, it is also the worst thing for a team representative to say. Whatever Rob Smedley’s achievements in F1, he will always be remembered as the engineer who said to Massa (below), “Fernando is faster than you.”
There has to be a reason behind it and that has to be about what is best for the team’s interest to win a race. After the race there has to be a full debrief with all data with both drivers in which the situation and the decision are explained.
All teams are different and the exact words used on Sunday are not known, although sources suggest that Bottas was fine with the detailed explanation. His words in the press conference even before that debrief had taken place indicate that he knew he wasn’t fast enough. What he will have wanted to know is how real Hamilton’s chances of victory were at that point? Or was it just about giving Hamilton the extra three points for second place to keep in closer touch with Vettel, which would be less acceptable at this early stage of the season and demotivating for Bottas?
A bit of research on Sunday night around the F1 paddock indicates an ‘enlightened’ team order is usually done by explaining that the other driver is on a different plan and has new tyres and is much faster with a chance to win the race. If the driver ahead feels he has the pace to do it, now is his chance for the next two or three laps to speed up and show it.
This puts the responsibility in the hands of the driver in front. If he speeds up, the car positions stay as they are and it’s up to the following driver to find a way past.
If he does not, as Bottas didn’t on Sunday, then he realises himself that the game is up and to stay ahead would be to cost the team a chance of winning the race, which in turn means 7 fewer points in the Constructors’ Championship.
Race pace deficit
Hamilton was grateful and conciliatory towards his new team mate, in the same way as he was remarkably gracious when Bottas took pole on Saturday.
The motives for both reactions were the same; Hamilton is a good bit faster than Bottas in race pace and has been right since the start of testing. While Bottas has done very well on the single lap pace to close the gap in qualifying from around 3/10ths on Australia, down to 2/10ths in China and pole in Bahrain, he still has a long way to go to match Hamilton in races. Raikkonen is similarly adrift of Vettel at Ferrari.
Bottas had the added issue of a tyre pressure error at the first stint, but by his own admission he generally wasn’t quick enough in any of the three stints.
In stint two of the race, the team had allowed Hamilton to sit behind Bottas for 10 laps, from Lap 17 to Lap 27. During that time Vettel opened the gap up over Hamilton from 1.9secs to 6.7 seconds. Arguably the team made a mistake in allowing this to happen. Vettel’s second stint was what won him the race, the fastest fuel corrected pace of anyone in the race.
“I just couldn’t keep up with the pace,” said of the early part of the race. “The tyres were just dropping. Then on the second stint it was a bit better initially. I think the second stint was not that far off. Still struggling with oversteer but much less than in the first one, and then the last stint, again, used the tools I had to adjust the car balance but still couldn’t get the rear end to work.
“Really strange race for me and the pace was disappointingly poor for me. Yeah, not a good day for me.”
Hamilton had the pace to challenge Vettel on the soft tyre, which is why he used it for two stints in the race. He lost the minimum amount of time getting through Bottas, but Vettel had something in hand and turned his engine up from Laps 50 to 53 to tell Hamilton that he had some reserve. Hamilton realised it and the signs are he cooled it, as his lap times dropped in the final three laps.
Look at the race trace below, Hamilton’s line is the solid blue, Bottas the dotted blue. The gaps between the lines show the gaps in seconds and the upward curve shows the pace, the more steeply upward the curve, the greater the pace. A version of this in real time is what the Mercedes team will have been looking at to inform their decision.
Hamilton lost the race due to a series of setbacks, which started with not getting pole, then losing a place at the start to Vettel, then making an error under the Safety Car, which attracted a five second penalty then being constrained to take used soft tyres for the final stint as Mercedes was struggling on race day to get the supersofts to perform and to last.
That he got as close as he did shows his remarkable pace on soft tyres, but in reality Vettel had the race won. One can understand why Mercedes felt it was worth trying it with the team order, but they will be monitoring carefully any negative effect on Bottas’ motivation and spirit going forward.
The good news for the Finn is that the next race is Russia, historically his strongest track and an ideal place to show what he can do.
What do you think of this situation? Would you have done the same thing if you were on the Mercedes pit wall? Leave your comment below