x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Mercedes sign to Hamilton to give right of way to Rosberg not too clear to call

Mercedes was trying to get both cars on podium, but they now have responsibilities to both men as championship challengers.

Matters compounded, and could again, for Mercedes if their drivers run each other close on the track as well along with their tight tussle in the drivers’ championship race. Valdrin Xhemaj / EPA
Matters compounded, and could again, for Mercedes if their drivers run each other close on the track as well along with their tight tussle in the drivers’ championship race. Valdrin Xhemaj / EPA

Mercedes-GP was doing such a good job.

Not only have they built the fastest car in Formula One in 2014, but they cruised through the first 10 races without facing accusations of favouritism toward one of their two star drivers, who are both fighting for the world championship.

That sense of fairness is easier said than done. The team must balance who goes out first in qualifying, who has the first call on pit stops and who takes precedence during strategic decisions.

Yes, Lewis Hamilton has had more bad luck with car reliability, but teammate Nico Rosberg has had a few issues, too.

And while the latter leads the driver standings by 11 points, it is Hamilton who has won more races, with the score reading 5-4 in his favour.

But then along came the Hungaroring last weekend, when Hamilton, running third with Rosberg a second behind him in fourth, was told via radio on Lap 47 of a 70-lap race, “don’t hold him [Nico] up”.

Step aside, he was told, for his teammate.

At this stage, Hamilton, on the harder tyres, intended to run until the end of the race with no further pit stops, with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull Racing car and the Ferrari of Alonso just ahead of him.

Rosberg, who had been hurt by the bad timing of the first safety-car period, brake problems and a spell stuck behind the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, was a second adrift of Hamilton, but crucially, had to make one more pit stop.

The logic from Mercedes was to try to get the best result possible, which on paper seemed perfectly reasonable. They needed Rosberg in clear air to gain as much time as he could on Ricciardo and Alonso before he pitted.

Podcast: F1 season ahead post the Hungarian Grand Prix

There was also a belief that Rosberg, on fresher tyres, could still win the race, which would be great for everyone in the team as they continued their domination. Everyone but Hamilton, anyway.

The Briton is fighting Rosberg in what has evolved into a two-horse race for the points title, and helping the German would be aiding the one man who can deny him a second world crown.

Hamilton ignored repeated radio orders, did not slow down, and not unreasonably pointed out afterward that if the German had been all over his rear wing, he would not have fought him.

Instead, a frustrated Rosberg pitted on Lap 57 and set a blistering pace on fresh tyres as he quickly moved back up to fourth, finally catching Alonso and Hamilton on the final lap.

Rosberg tried to pass Hamilton, but the Briton ran him wide on the exit of Turn 2 to ensure he held on to third place.

Let us pretend, in another reality, that Hamilton did what he was told and allowed Rosberg through earlier.

The soft tyre had an estimated timing benefit of one second per lap, so Rosberg could have pulled clear of Hamilton.

Let us hypothetically assume that he opened up a gap of eight seconds on Hamilton after being allowed past.

The margin would have ensured that when he pitted on Lap 57, he would have been 14 seconds behind, with an average pit stop lasting around 22 seconds.

He would have caught Hamilton sooner over the closing laps, and had more chances to pass, versus the sole opportunity he had on the final lap.

Thus, Hamilton, from his point of view, was completely vindicated in not listening to his team.

In all, Hamilton gained three points on Rosberg in Hungary, but if the latter had passed him on the last lap, it would have been a six-point swing – rather than trailing by 11 points, Hamilton would be 17 behind.

Imagine how Hamilton, who was already angry for the second successive race after starting from the back of the grid due to technical problems, would feel if he lost the world title by less than three points, knowing the reason he had fallen short was because he ignored his instincts and played the team game in Hungary?

Distraught would be an understatement, I imagine.

Yes, he ignored a direct request from his employer, which is rarely a great idea, but the 2008 world champion should never have been put in that position. Mercedes was trying to get both of their cars on the podium, but they now have responsibilities to both men as championship challengers.

The drivers are so well-matched, and every point counts. The fact there are 11 points between them after as many races says it all.

There will be many more twists and turns in the next seven races before the season finale at the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on November 23.

There is concern over F1’s popularity, given the fall in TV ratings and poor attendances at some races this year, most notably in Germany earlier this month. Any attempt, as innocent as it may seem, to manufacture the situation on track will go down like a lead balloon, as it did on Sunday.

There is already enough paranoia in the minds of some fans, and probably Hamilton’s too, over the bad luck and breakdowns he has endured this season, so the Hungarian wrangling adds to the feeling of distrust.

Mercedes’ orders to Hamilton doubtlessly were made with the best of intentions, though they were not well thought through.

Mercedes have done an exceptional job this season and are, barring unforeseen disasters, guaranteed the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

But they owe it to F1 as a whole to ensure that, come the end of the action at Yas Marina Circuit, that the faster man was determined by Hamilton and Rosberg, not through some tinkering on the pit wall.

gcaygill@thenational.ae

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