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Mercedes had locked out the front row of the Russian Grand Prix, but the wrong driver was on pole.
The rumours began immediately upon Valtteri Bottas fending off Lewis Hamilton in the battle for P1 — surely Mercedes wouldn’t allow a straight fight between its two drivers when both championship battles were still live, even if they were only flickering in the twilight of the season.
After all, Hamilton is Mercedes’ only realistic title contender at this point of the season, and Sebastian Vettel, 40 points behind Hamilton in the standings before the Russian Grand Prix, is the Briton’s only realistic challenger, even if the chances of him beating Lewis to a fifth world championship became only more remote throughout a difficult October.
The German had qualified third alongside Hamilton in what was essentially a must-win grand prix to keep his title destiny in his control, and with Ferrari and Mercedes closely matched on race pace in Sochi, nothing could be taken for granted despite the Silver Arrows dominating qualifying.
All the headline factors lent an air of inevitability to Mercedes making the call for Bottas to cede his lead to Hamilton in the name of the drivers championship fight, and indeed at around half distance the Finn was ordered to do exactly that.
The deed done, Hamilton extended his championship lead to a crushing 50 points over Vettel as he led home a Mercedes formation finish, but it was to the pleasure of no-one.
Not Hamilton and certainly not Bottas was happy with the result, and suddenly Sochi became ground zero for the reopening of the tension between teams and individuals in Formula One.
Countering all the key reasons Hamilton was ordained by Mercedes management to finish ahead of Bottas was the inescapable emotional narrative that Bottas deserved to win the 2018 Russian Grand Prix, having controlled the race from pole position at a circuit around which he has never been outqualified by a teammate and has typically excelled on Sundays.
Add to the mix the fact that Bottas has been forlornly searching for a win all season to kick his sophomore Mercedes year into gear. He was denied victory through strategy in Bahrain, a safety car in China and debris in Azerbaijan, leaving him languishing down the order in the championship standings.
Some subsequent risky strategies then led to underwhelming results and his ensuing lack of confidence begot his recent poor form, but he used Russia, a happy hunting ground of his, to put together the most complete weekend of his season to date and reverse his declining performance trend.
Adding to the distaste was that Hamilton already held a commanding 40-point lead over Vettel going into the race and that the team order was the difference between him extending that to 43 points or 50 points. Mathematically the title fight lives on, but, all things being equal, it was only ever a decision about how fast Hamilton is likely to earn his fifth crown.
So does Bottas’ personal narrative outweigh the collective story attempting to be told by Mercedes?
Consider as a contrasting example the derision levelled at Ferrari after qualifying for the Italian Grand Prix, when the championship was still well and truly in the balance. The team chose to give Kimi Raikkonen, not Vettel, the benefit of a team-ordered slipstream around the power circuit and then sent him out too late to at least pick up a tow from Hamilton.
Raikkonen led the Ferrari front-row lockout, which was a contributing factor in Vettel’s first-lap crash with Hamilton that cost him a podium place.
Consider also the Italian team’s handling of its German Grand Prix strategy — it dithered in ordering the slower Raikkonen out of Vettel’s way, which created unnecessary pressure on Sebastian when the rain came and therefore played an indirect role in his crash.
Indeed for every reason one might deride the use of team orders in the latter stages of a championship battle there is an occasion when the reluctance to deploy them has been fairly criticised.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes, and it’s me today,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said, summing up the team-orders equation. “What do I opt for: to be the baddie on Sunday evening, or do I want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season?
“I’d rather be the baddie today than the idiot at the end of the year.”
A fifth Hamilton title may seem like a sure thing, but predicting the outcome of the next five grands prix — and this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix is already forecast to be typhoon-affected as a case in point — is a mug’s game.
Questions of perceived fairness or natural justice simply don’t come into it, because by the time we get to Abu Dhabi who wins the championship, not who wins the Russian Grand Prix, is the only question that matters.