The most recent Formula 1 race at Sochi, Russia (Sept. 30) should be a reminder of how disappointing the sport can get at times. For those who follow on a consistent basis, the common letdown is that one manufacturer is so good that everyone else on the grid is trying to sort out who will take the third step on the podium. At least in the current clime, Red Bull and Ferrari are able to challenge the alpha, Mercedes.
When Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton locked out the first row for the Russian Grand Prix, no one seemed shocked. Even though Hamilton had been on a role in taking P1s, Bottas’ qualifying effort highlighted more his comfort with the Sochi track than anything else. Ferrari and Red Bull lined up behind the Silver Arrows and everything seemed to be set to run another race where the pit stop and tyre strategies would be the barometer for success.
Except that’s not what happened.
Mercedes covered any moves made, kept both cars running smoothly, and never felt a serious challenge to their race win and accumulation of Constructors championship points. The lead over Ferrari now stands at 53 points.
The issue with the race came at roughly the midpoint when Mercedes boss Toto Wolff pushed a small button in the pits. That was all it took. The ramifications from the button-push, put Hamilton ahead of Bottas and effectively into the race lead, though Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was technically in the lead. When Verstappen needed to make his pit stop, the Mercedes held court at the front again.
This use of team orders came under the guise of Mercedes needing to help Hamilton protect his tyres so that he would have enough on them to manage any fight from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel. The fear of a duel from Vettel, however, seemed disingenuous and proved to be that way when Bottas held him off with little strain.
As the laps left to race became scant, the radio exchange between Bottas and the Mercedes pit was telling. When he asked about whether the team would be switching Bottas and Hamilton back to their original spots, the response was a refusal and that they would talk about it later.
It came as no surprise then that Bottas rammed the sign in parc ferme that showcased his second-place finish.
More disappointing for the sport was Hamilton’s reaction when getting out the car after his win secured a 50-point lead over Vettel the Driver’s championship; rather than being his usual jubilant self, Hamilton acted sheepishly and avoided much of the customary celebration with team members in the pits.
Both drivers toed the proverbial ‘party line’ when speaking to the press, spouting the usual cliches of – a good day for the team; the one-two finish was a great result, much-needed points, blah blah blah. Yet it was not hard to see the frustration from Bottas nor the uncertainty from Hamilton.
Team orders are never pretty. Over the past few seasons, they have been rarely used so criticism toward them has been minimal. This race showcases the reasons that they’re bad: boring racing; questions toward team morale; difficulty in believing in a sense of open competition; and who knows how many others.
Yes, the goal for Mercedes is to win, and Hamilton is leading the driver’s title and should secure his fifth championship at the end of the year. But for Bottas the win would have been only the fourth of his career compared to being the 70th for Hamilton. Would second place have been such a bad thing for Hamilton and his title hopes? Playing hypotheticals is a game with no real outcome so the question is nothing to truly consider, though perhaps the story of Hamilton handing the lead back to Bottas might have been one that could be feted and indicate that F1 can accentuate its sense of sportsmanship over Machiavellian gamesmanship.
Odds & Sods
– Because F1 likes to tinker with everything, there’s been rumors of two tracks possibly becoming part of the schedule. Of course, any chatter on such a thing should be taken with the usual sense of skepticism. (See: Miami Grand Prix.) The latest to be mentioned is Zandvoort in the Netherlands and a potential spot in Hanoi, Vietnam. The prospect of a Dutch GP is probably far more likely at this point, as the track last hosted a race in 1985 and is said to need minimal upgrades to get it ready.
The Vietnam GP seems to be a bit of a pipe dream at the moment. Both ventures, however, are meant to keep the schedule safe should any current track not be part of the season – and in that regard, a number of events still bring questions regarding financing and may not maintain being included.
The choices here, are interesting, almost as if to recognize that both Europe and the Asian markets will need replacements soon. Yet what is conspicuously absent is mention of tracks in the Americas.
Suzuka came into existence in 1962, basically as a test track for Honda. Beginning in 1963, it began hosting grand prix but has done so in a somewhat inconsistent fashion, alternating with the Fuji track at times, and the Japanese Grand Prix being left off the schedule altogether at others. Since 2009, however, the race has stayed at Suzuka, an 18-turn, 3.6-mile track. Hamilton is the defending race winner and also won in 2007, 2014, and 2015. Vettel is no slouch at the track either, with four wins to his credit. One thing to note is the elevation changes, which adds to the difficulties in cornering.