The case in favour of Mercedes' team orders call

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Mercedes have been backtracking since making the controversial call asking Lewis Hamilton to let Nico Rosberg through at the Hungarian Grand Prix. But should they really be sorry?

Hamilton has received a huge amount of backing from his Mercedes team for refusing to slow down and let Rosberg through in yesterday's race. Niki Lauda, who has the final say on most driver matters, outright told Autosport that “from my point of view, Lewis was right.”

However, despite the team backing down and putting on a big show of contrition, a compelling case can be made for Mercedes being right in asking Hamilton to get out of Rosberg's way.

Although the front runners could breeze past the midfield with relative ease, we saw that when they got close to one another on the twisting Hungaroring track, running nose-to-tail was a struggle. Whether the high downforce was putting some good old-fashioned dirty air back into play, or Ferrari and Red Bull have simply closed the gap in race pace, the fact is that we saw some very close competition.

It's because of this that too much emphasis has been put on the fact that Nico couldn't break through with DRS and get close enough to Lewis to overtake him. After Hamilton got back on-track from his final pitstop, Rosberg took just four laps to eliminate the three-second gap between himself and his title rival. The pace was there. However, thanks to the conditions which eliminated Mercedes' thunderous advantage, Rosberg couldn't force the issue with his team-mate.

This shouldn't be surprising. Earlier in the race, Rosberg spent almost a whole stint looking at the tailpipe of Jean Eric Vergne's Toro Rosso. Hamilton himself spent 17 laps trying to find a way past Sebastian Vettel's Red Bull, and only succeeded when the four-time champion decided to do some impromptu doughnuts on the home straight.

The point being that it was understandable that Rosberg was struggling to take on his team-mate. Neither of them had been able to easily get past similarly-paced cars, so expecting Rosberg to cruise up to equal machinery was a huge ask.

However, what was never up for discussion was Rosberg's clear-air pace. It took him just 11 laps to close down the 25-second gap to Hamilton, and only some very aggressive defensive driving from Lewis kept Nico at bay during the closing laps.

If Rosberg had been allowed to pass Hamilton and able to push in clean air with his middle set of soft tyres, however, the result could have been very different. The pace advantage he had would have let him close up on the cars ahead. He still would have had to pit again, but would have had less of a monumental gap to close during the final few laps, and the extra time would have allowed him to challenge for higher honours than the fourth place he managed.

If the team had forced the issue, Rosberg would almost certainly have beaten Hamilton. However, it would also have given Mercedes a shot at securing a better placing than the third and fourth they managed, something which would have helped the team as a whole in the constructor's championship.

Instead, they sided with Hamilton's decision, and at the same time made the implicit statement that they are willing to sacrifice the maximum possible points haul in order to try to give parity in the drivers' fight. It marks the start of a new chapter in the story of Mercedes' season: they are no longer worried about fighting the outside teams, now they are letting the battle from within commence.

This is a dangerous situation to allow before it is mathematically impossible for the team to be caught. We all know that it is realistically impossible for Red Bull to overturn their 174 point deficit to Mercedes, but asking the drivers to fight for the team rather than against each other until the constructors' title is secure is a good mechanism for keeping Hamilton and Rosberg on the same page.

Now that Mercedes have both allowed a driver to break team orders, and acknowledged that the fight they need to be worried about is internal rather than external, all bets are off in the already-feisty relationship between the two. With eight races to go, that is a lot of scope for a lot to go very wrong between the pair.

With the beauty that is hindsight, Mercedes should have made a different call. Rather than a blanket request for Lewis to get out of the way, they should have explained that Rosberg was on a different strategy and presented the Brit with two options for after he had eased off. Either Rosberg would pit again, putting him back behind, and then there would be no team orders. Or, if Rosberg didn't pit again but couldn't make any further progress up the grid, they'd swap the positions back regardless of the time gap between them. They could also have offered Hamilton the chance to pit first if they'd called in both for some fresh soft tyres, then let the pair race until the end.

Either way, Mercedes made the wrong call to outright ask Lewis to move over. But by not sticking to their guns and forcing obedience, they've made a far graver error.

Until now, Mercedes have said that they force the drivers to stick to strategy unless car damage or weather come into play. That could now be blown away. At the same time it has given Rosberg agency to keep Hamilton behind him should the Brit find himself on a different stragegy but looking at his German team-mate's rear-wing at another twisting, hard-to-pass circuit, such as Singapore.

For the first half of the season, Mercedes have done an exemplary job of keeping both of their drivers in line and, at least on the surface, on the same page. However, their mishandling of having the quicker car stuck behind the slower one during a race where passing amongst the front runners was proving a huge challenge could lead to their downfall.

Mercedes have changed the rules of combat between their drivers by both giving the call to move over and then supporting the driver's decision to mutiny. They have given them agency to declare war on each other and race for themselves over the team - and that is a highly combustable situation.

Whatever the outcome, it will be a lot harder to manage than asking Lewis to get out of the way and then undercut Rosberg on some softs of his own.