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F1: glum faces and lack of celebration mark Mercedes 1-2 in Sochi

Bryan Edwards

F1 is a team sport and that means that, sometimes, hard decisions produce results that prejudice one or other side of the garage. Team orders are both a necessary evil and a despicable trick. Gamblers hate team orders (serves them right for trying to fly in the face of the nature of the sport then whining when it goes against them), fans of pure racing hate them (but those who are fans of the sport, per se, acknowledge their importance) and casual watchers don't understand them. Yes, they interfere with the spectacle and yes, they leave a bad taste in the mouth. And the 2018 Russian Grand Prix in Sochi left a taste that even the victory champagne could not wash away for either the man who came in second nor, importantly, the winner. And that's sad for the events eclipsed a truly great race, but that's not this story.

The word "angst" has been over-worked in literature and the media for decades. It has become debased. But in the garage of the Mercedes AMG F1 team in Sochi today, there was no single English word that is appropriate. Valtteri Bottas won last year's race under great pressure from Sebastian Vettel. Never, in the (long but broken) history of the Russian Grand Prix has it ever been won by a car other than a Mercedes. In the current era, Lewis Hamilton had, before today, won three out of five races. But Sochi last year and this was not his track: it belonged to his team-mate, Bottas. Bottas secured pole position with a faultless flying lap. Hamilton was not far behind but he was behind. And in the race, Bottas pumped in lap after lap of superb driving, maintaining a distance of just more than one second ahead of Hamilton who was one of several drivers with whom Bottas traded fastest laps.

In the garage, Toto Wolff sat, his finger hovering over the "Tactics" radio button. Only the day before, he had told pretty much anyone who would listen that Bottas taking pole had made it "difficult" to impose team orders.

As the race started, Ferrari were within striking distance of Mercedes in the Constructors' Championship which, to teams, is more important than the Drivers' Championship that the fans prefer. While commentators say that the Drivers' Championship is all over bar the shouting, that Vettel's mathematical chances of beating Hamilton are only theoretical, that was not actually so. Hamilton led Vettel by 40 points and there are 25 available for each win. Therefore, Vettel was only two wins away from beating Hamilton's then current total. And if Hamilton has two DNFs or non-point finishes, regardless of the reason, Vettel would be ahead. F1 is a cruel sport runs of bad luck or cock-up are common: just ask Vettel whose season has faltered through a series of misfortunes and mistakes. There were six races to go and to pretend that there was no risk to Hamilton or Mercedes in either championship would be complacent to the point of recklessness. Bottas, who has had a pretty torrid season through no fault of his own, is not in contention for the driver's championship and nor is Vettel's teammate, Kimi Räikkönen. In the constructor's championship, Ferrari were closer, largely due to Räikkönen's consistency in racking up one third place after another.

Everyone, including Bottas, knew that if Mercedes came in first and second, with Vettel expected to be third and Räikkönen fourth, that at the end of the Sochi weekend, Mercedes would leave with a fifty-three point advantage in the all-important Constructors' Championship and five races to go. But that advantage could be reduced a little or a lot by many factors: a crash, the fluffing of a pit-stop, a driving penalty or, perhaps most likely, a failure in strategy. Hamilton and Vettel have both suffered pit-wall errors that are, frankly, bemusing. But, in the absence of such events, a one-two for the Silver Arrows was the most likely outcome, regardless of what order their cars finished in. And, surely, at this stage of the season, an advantage of more than two race wins would be enough to secure the title, no matter what happened later. But, just a few laps into the race, it became clear how foolish such an expectation would be: within five laps both Toro Rosso cars were out, both suffering brake failures. It's not the first time a team has been taken out by a failure affecting both cars and it won't be the last. A fifty-three point advantage, as Mercedes now have, can turn into a bare lead in the space of a few corners.

But it was the Driver's Championship that raised the most questions: there were no circumstances in which Bottas did not deserve the opportunity to win. All the team had to do was let him get on with it. James Allison and Toto Wolff were anguished. They were about to tell the man who is arguably the most popular man in the pits that he was going to have to surrender his victory to support his team mate and that his moment, the one where he lifts the trophy above his head amid the spray of warm champagne, was to be denied him. This, his best chance for success in this part of the 2018 season would not be recorded in a triumphant photograph for his grandchildren to marvel at when they visit his retirement home in the Finnish mountains. Nor for his children to show to their friends, saying "that's my dad when he won the Russian Grand Prix in 2018."

The long tail effects of team orders should not be under-estimated but those thoughts were almost certainly not what was in the minds of the strategists at Mercedes: they were focussed on only one thing - Hamilton had bruised his second set of tyres and following close behind Bottas was chewing them up and Verstappen, who had done an incredible job to come from last to first, was holding up both Mercedes pending his pit stop. Vettel was closing in and Hamilton was vulnerable. If Hamilton was running in clear air, his chances of making the finish in good order were hugely increased and the gap to Verstappen even before his stop was relatively clear air. Swapping the cars around was an easy decision to make, so long as Bottas could keep Vettel at bay as he had done last year.

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