The Mercedes executive director, Toto Wolff, has said the team will consider team orders after defeat at the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday made it clear the battle for this year’s Formula One world championship will be closely contested with Ferrari.
Lewis Hamilton was beaten to victory by Sebastian Vettel at the Sakhir circuit and compromised his race by incurring a five-second penalty due to slowing in the pit lane but also lost time behind his team-mate, Valtteri Bottas, while Mercedes considered whether to let Hamilton pass.
Mercedes have rules of engagement for its drivers but previously have always allowed them to race without orders. However Vettel now has two wins this season and leads Hamilton by seven points in the drivers’ championship on 68, with Bottas in third on 38, while Mercedes trail Ferrari by three points in the constructors’. Hamilton lost just under five seconds behind his team-mate while the team vacillated over ordering Bottas to let the three-time world champion past. It was enough to have at least cost him the chance to compete with Vettel.
Wolff said he did not like the idea of changing the rules of engagement but with early signs being that the title fight will be between Hamilton and Vettel, the team may do so. “It’s not what we have done in the last couple of years but the situation is different now, so it needs a proper analysis of what it means and where we are,” he said. “We’d like to give equal opportunity at the start of the race, I think we owe it to them. Then you see what we did in the race, we made the call because we felt it was the only possibility of winning the race.”
Bottas was off the pace after the team were unable to bleed off pressure in his tyres on the grid due to the failure of a generator and Hamilton was the team’s best chance of at least catching Vettel. Bottas has yet to prove he can realistically challenge for the title, while Hamilton is already in the fight. However, while the team is now considering imposing in-race orders, Wolff ruled out nominating one driver as the No1 before the start of a race.
“It’s important as we start the race to give them equal opportunity,” he said. “You have two cars starting on the front row, if they run second and first you just have to let them race. Three races into the season, you don’t want to go there yet.”
Ferrari called the race strategy with great skill, pulling Vettel in early and using the undercut to take the lead but with Mercedes enjoying a slight power advantage and qualifying superiority while Ferrari have superb race pace and are better able to work its tyres on a Sunday, there is little to chose between them. That the margins are so minimal means Mercedes need to act now, believes the former driver John Watson, who raced in F1 between 1973 and 1985.
“Mercedes are realising that their biggest challenge is going to be Vettel and they have got to respond,” he said. “If Lewis is fundamentally the quicker driver then teams have to do what they have to do.”
Hamilton’s former team-mate Nico Rosberg retired after winning the world championship last season and Paddy Lowe, the former technical director, also left to join Williams this season, leaving Mercedes vulnerable and needing to prioritise their best shot at the title, added Watson.
“They have to protect their situation,” he said. “The team is weaker than it was last year. Rosberg has gone, Paddy Lowe has gone. You lose a senior member of a team and that has a bearing, it means the team is slightly on the back foot.”