By Abhishek Takle
Mercedes and Ferrari both used team orders in Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix, but the outcomes those radio calls engineered for their two main men in the championship couldn’t have been more different.
Ferrari used Kimi Raikkonen as a buffer between championship leader Sebastian Vettel, hamstrung by a skewed steering, and the charging Mercedes of his title rival Lewis Hamilton. The Finn was not allowed to overtake his race-leading teammate despite being clearly faster.
On the other hand, Mercedes, who had asked Valtteri Bottas to allow the faster Hamilton through to attack the leading Ferrari pair, swapped them back around on the final lap. When it became clear the Briton would not be able to pass the red cars, Hamilton gave up the final podium spot, and crucial championship points with it, as he had promised he would.
Vettel, as a result, came away with the maximum 25 points. Hamilton meanwhile, who went into the weekend trailing the German by just one point, scored three fewer points than he could have.
The favourite to seize the championship lead heading into the weekend for the first time this year, the triple champion instead goes into Formula One’s four-week summer break facing a 14-point deficit.
‘I want to win it the right way’
“I want to win the championship the right way, and I don’t know whether that will come back to bite me on the backside or not,” the 32-year-old, whose team boss Toto Wolff echoed his words, told reporters after the race.
“But I said at the beginning of the year, I want to win it the right way. Today was the right way.”
Mercedes and Hamilton’s gesture was an act of ultimate sportsmanship, all the more so considering the Briton had pulled seven seconds clear of Bottas who was under attack from a recovering Max Verstappen.
But that doesn’t mean Ferrari were the bad guys for not letting Raikkonen race away to his first win since the Australian Grand Prix in 2013.
While it is Mercedes’ policy to treat both its drivers equally, Ferrari has traditionally always favoured a number one. Leading the championship, with Raikkonen already 79 points adrift in fifth before the Hungary race, Vettel is clearly that number one.
For a team, even Ferrari, who have always placed more emphasis on the drivers’ championship than the constructors’, winning on the day is most important.
His steering issue getting worse, Vettel was told to avoid the kerbs so as not to exacerbate the problem. His pace dropped as a result, giving Mercedes a chance of victory.
Hamilton being the faster car was released from behind Bottas and sent after the two Ferraris. He caught them rapidly. But Ferrari hedged their bets on Hamilton not being able to get close enough around the twisty track to execute a pass and told Raikkonen to hold position.
Reward and risk
The risk was it could cost them the win. The reward, that they would hang on to victory and triumph with the driver likeliest to clinch them their first drivers’ title since 2007, ironically won by Raikkonen.
The gamble worked, Hamilton was unable to get close enough to mount a genuine attack. With the victory secure, it was only natural for them to then ensure the best outcome for the drivers’ championship.
The next series of circuits on the calendar, the flowing, sweeping Spa-Francorchamps and the fast Monza, should play to Mercedes’ strengths just as the tight, twisty Hungaroring favoured Ferrari.
Hamilton will never get back the three points he lost on Sunday. But he should be able make up for that loss, at least to some degree, at Spa and Monza, and perhaps even Malaysia and Suzuka later on.
Vettel, meanwhile, could have to wait until the Singapore Grand Prix in September to score his next win, making it all the more crucial that he left Hungary with as much of a buffer as possible.
After the race, Vettel conceded Raikkonen had been faster.
“Sorry about that, Kimi. Well managed,” Ferrari’s head of racing activities Jock Clear said to Raikkonen in the cool down room before the podium ceremony.
Sticking to his horses
“He’s very valuable because there’s no bulls**t, we respect each other” Vettel told TV reporters later, refusing to take the bait when asked about Raikkonen’s value as a team-mate. “I think we had good days, maybe some days that were a bit trickier. But we manage those and move on.”
And what of Mercedes? The championship battle this year has been close. What if the loss of those three points proves costly for Hamilton in the end?
“We drive in circles because we hope that it promotes our brand and makes us sell cars and it’s a very long-term project,” said the German outfit’s boss Wolff.
“And we’ve seen the backlash of decisions that were ruthless and cold-blooded and the effect it had on the brand.
“Now you say ‘Screw it, it still won them the championship. Who cares? You’re down in the history books’.
“But I don’t think this is the right spin. If I come back to what I think the purpose of us being here is, it is doing the right things and winning in the right way. And sometimes doing it the right way and standing by your values is tough.
“It was today, believe me.”
Featured image source: Wikimedia commons