The former world champion Damon Hill believes Mercedes would be making a major mistake if they imposed team orders on their drivers as a result of last weekend’s clash at the Austrian Grand Prix.
Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton came together, with Rosberg leading, on the final lap at the Red Bull Ring on Sunday. Hamilton came through unscathed to win but the German slipped back to fourth and was judged by the stewards to have been culpable for the incident. The loss of a potential one-two was greeted with fury at Mercedes. Toto Wolff, the executive director, said afterwards that the team would be discussing imposing team orders on the drivers and would make a decision before the British Grand Prix at Silverstone this weekend.
Hill, though, says the incident was a sign of Rosberg’s intent to try to match his team-mate’s determination and ruthlessness because he cannot match the British driver for pace and does not believe team orders would solve their problems.
“Nico has to put up a defence, otherwise he is going to be the guy who never gets to the front of the queue,” said Hill. “He is showing he is going to fight, he is showing Lewis he is prepared to be ruthless. That is a measure of how badly he wants to win. He knows this is his big chance and he wants to win that championship. The only problem he has is that Lewis is clearly quicker – when you get a straight fight, Lewis beats him.”
Mercedes have always made a point of emphasising that they have allowed their drivers to race freely but having taken each other out on the first lap in Barcelona in May, the team are now concerned that further incidents may threaten the team’s attempt to take a third constructors’ championship in a row, although they still lead their closest rivals Ferrari by 103 points.
Hill believes an attempt to control the battle – one in which the pair are largely alone at the front of the field – would be a severe miscalculation. “The gloves are off between the drivers,” he said. “I think [Mercedes] would be shot if they tried to stop them racing. The fans would rebel against that idea.
“It would be a massive PR shot in the foot for Mercedes if they imposed team orders. The best thing they could do is say: ‘We can’t control our drivers, so we are just going to have to suck it up and leave it to the stewards.’”
Nor did the British driver, who won the title for Williams in 1996, think the team would be successful in imposing their will on the pair while the battle for the world championship was so tight – Rosberg currently leads Hamilton by 11 points. Wolff has stated emphatically that he believes if team orders are imposed, the drivers will obey them but Hill was sceptical.
“It’s an interesting part of our sport watching teams trying to control these wayward children, these badly behaved kids,” he said. “It’s one of the most enjoyable parts of Formula One – because they won’t succeed … It’s just not going to work.
“They should emphasise their impartiality as much as possible and just let them race,” he added.
Hamilton defied a team instruction to let Rosberg pass him at the Hungarian Grand Prix in 2014 and at the next race in Spa the German hit his rival going into Les Combes, forcing the world champion’s retirement. Rosberg was subsequently severely reprimanded by the team and the pair raced cleanly until Barcelona. In 2013 at the Malaysian Grand Prix, in their first season together and before Mercedes had the utterly dominant car they now possess, Rosberg reluctantly obeyed an instruction to stay behind his team-mate despite being quicker as Hamilton was in fuel-saving mode. He is highly unlikely to be so compliant should the same instruction be passed on at Silverstone on Sunday.
That it is ultimately always the drivers in charge on the track was further demonstrated at that same race in Malaysia when Sebastian Vettel passed his team-mate Mark Webber to take the win in contravention of clear team orders in the notorious multi-21 incident. Hamilton has described their potential imposition as “against all my racing values and rules and the foundation of what racing is about”.
Central to the problem for Mercedes is the clash between team and driver priorities, which Hill rightly notes is an intrinsic part of the way the sport is structured.
“They are employing two highly professional drivers to do more than one job,” he said. “They are asking them to get the best result for themselves but also the best result for the team as well. This is the fundamental flaw – the problem of two championships. As a racing driver you don’t really care which team you are driving for, you just want to win the drivers’ championship. The teams depend entirely on their constructor championship results, it is such a massive part of their income. Those two things clash, so from their point of view team orders are entirely justified.
“But that goes against their other objective which is to promote Mercedes products – so they are caught in a double bind. They are in the sport for the kudos and the PR but if they are not careful they will appear to be spoilsports.”
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