Lewis Hamilton stood by Mercedes’ decision to manufacture his controversial win in Russia that takes him ever closer to a fifth world championship.
Hamilton will head into the final five rounds with an almost uncatchable 50-point lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after team-mate Valtteri Bottas was ordered out of his way at the Sochi Autodrom.
Bottas was in complete control of the race only for Mercedes to instruct him to step aside with 30 laps remaining.
To the absolute credit of Mercedes, they have avoided using team orders in their recent history, but with Vettel still in striking range of Hamilton, they adopted a change of tact here, denying Bottas his first win of 2018 and handing their star driver seven extra, and potentially, critical points.
Hamilton was a reluctant winner, and chose not to celebrate. Instead, he immediately sought to console Bottas.
This type of victory is not Hamilton’s style. Instead, he invited Bottas to join him on the top step of the podium, and even appeared to suggest to the deflated Finn that he should lift the winners’ trophy in front of the watching Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“It doesn’t feel great,” Hamilton said. “I definitely don’t think I have finished first in my career, and feel the way that I do right now.
Only time will tell if it was necessary, but if we were to lose the championship by one point, would you look back at this race and think we should have worked as a team?
“We are a team, and the team want to win both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, so that is why the bosses took the decision.”
Sebastian Vettel said it was a “no-brainer” for Mercedes to move Bottas aside. “Lewis and Valtteri played the game together as a team very well,” he said. “In the position they are in, what Mercedes did today was a no-brainer.”
For the first time this year, the championship is now out of Vettel’s hands, and the German admitted he is running out of time to stop Hamilton.
“I wasn’t a genius in maths, but I was clever enough to pay attention and realise that it isn’t getting easier if we lose points,” he added.
Toto Wolff, team principal for the Silver Arrows, admitted it was an agonising decision, and one which led to him enduring a restless night on Saturday after Bottas beat Hamilton to pole.
Team orders were regular practice for Ferrari during Michael Schumacher’s commanding era. Some, rather harshly, compared this result to the farce of Austria in 2002 when Rubens Barrichello was instructed to move out of Schumacher’s way on the final lap.
Such was the uproar, that it resulted in a ban on team orders which Ferrari breached when they ordered Felipe Massa aside for Fernando Alonso in Germany in 2010.
At the end of that year, the ban was lifted. Unlike on both those occasions, Bottas, 110 points behind Hamilton before Sunday’s race, stood no chance of winning the title.
At the end, if five points or three points are missing then you are the biggest idiot on the planet by prioritising Valtteri’s race over the championship,” Wolff said.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie and it’s me today.”
Bottas was leading after he held off Hamilton and Vettel on the opening-lap drag race to turn two. Hamilton was slow out of his starting blocks, but kept Vettel at bay only to fall behind the German when he stopped for tyres.
Hamilton took less than two laps to pass Vettel, but damaged his tyres in the process.
Mercedes feared the damage would leave him exposed, so on lap 23, Bottas’ race engineer, Tony Ross, delivered the bad news. “You need to let Lewis by into turn 13 of this lap,” he said.
Bottas slowed down, moved to the right, and Hamilton took the position before cruising to victory that leaves him on the brink of his fourth championship in five years with only 125 points to play for.