In letting the Bahrain Grand Prix victory slip through their grasp to Sebastian Vettel despite locking out the front row in qualifying, Mercedes ordered Valterri Bottas to yield and let his teammate, Lewis Hamilton, overtake him to maximise the team’s chances of chasing down the Ferrari driver.
Team orders are nothing new in Formula One, but they have been absent from the Mercedes team for quite some time due to the Silver Arrows’ desire to let their drivers race. That’s been an easy decision to make when their car has been in a league of its own, virtually guaranteeing them both the drivers’ and constructors’ title before the lights go out in the season-opening Grand Prix in Melbourne each year, but this year is not quite the same, and Mercedes damn sure know it.
"Yes, our three-year dominance is over," said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff ahead of this weekend’s Russian Grand Prix in Sochi. "It was not always good for Formula One. That's why many fans are now looking forward to a great world championship."
The competition from Ferrari, who won both in Melbourne and last time out in Bahrain, combined with the retirement of Nico Rosberg last December, means Wolff no longer has the headache of managing two of his own drivers whose only intention is to beat each other.
"Before, for three years we had to consider how to manage Rosberg and Hamilton, but that problem is now gone," Wolff said, with his task now firmly on finding a way to re-establish that dominance over Ferrari.
This Sunday’s grand prix at the Sochi Autodrome has the potential for yet another thrilling race given the track is notoriously tough on tyres, wide enough to encourage overtaking and both Ferrari and Mercedes appearing to have the advantage at certain venues over others.
Should Vettel break away at the front again and Hamilton prove the faster of the two Mercedes drivers, Wolff will have no hesitation to release the three-time world champion again if he finds himself behind Bottas.
"That never feels good," Wolff admitted. "But the question we had to ask was 'Do we want to lose the race?'
"Valtteri simply didn't have the tyres under control [in Bahrain], so we had to put Lewis ahead.
But Bottas, much to everyone’s surprise, is happy to play ball. The fact that the Finn only has a one-year contract at Mercedes – with Fernando Alonso looking all the more available come the end of the season as his campaign with McLaren continues to unravel in farcical scenes – is not lost on anyone, and his decision to do whatever the team ask of him is certainly a smart one if he is playing the long game to earn a new deal.
"If I have some issues in this race for whatever reason, or we are in different strategy, or Lewis is stuck behind me and the team tells me to move over I will," Bottas said in Sochi on Thursday. "We are doing this as a team and our target is to get maximum points for the team.
"Of course as a driver I am going to do everything I can not to be in that position. I want to have my own race, and own personal results. But I have always been a team player and in the long term that is going to reward you.
"This year the team needs to be more clever and more careful in terms of how we collect every single possible point and I completely understand that."
All this will benefit Hamilton and his attempt to reclaim the drivers’ championship in order to match Vettel’s four world titles. Stevenage-born Hamilton has already struck up a stronger relationship with Bottas than he ever did with Rosberg during their four tumultuous years together at Mercedes, and he confirmed that he spoke with Bottas about how the race unfolded in Bahrain – where Bottas was twice asked to let his faster teammate through.
"We talked about what happened in Bahrain very openly and Valtteri was very gracious," Hamilton said.
"I have been there before and it is not a great thing to hear. You just have to assess in the moment what your position is, and whether you are in a powerful position on track and contributing to the team's result.
"We are in a place now at this team where we discuss everything and we don't leave any of our emotions hidden at the track so you don't come with any long-term feelings to the next race.
"It made no sense for us to both fall behind and let Sebastian pull away, so in that scenario we worked as a team and while it was very tough for him he was a great gentleman about it and did the team proud."