Opinion: Decision time for Mercedes chiefs

Opinion: Decision time for Mercedes chiefs

13 September 2017 – Mercedes has admirably given equal treatment to Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas in 2017, but it risks losing out to Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel if it does not back the Briton in the title race, as GPUpdate.net argues.

Since Mercedes emerged as Formula 1's dominant force in 2014 it recognised the need to allow Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to race, ensuring that there remained a captivating storyline at the front of the field. It was good for Formula 1, good for Mercedes and in both 2014 and 2016 the title was decided at the finale. Mercedes' devotion to equal treatment bordered on the paranoid, so reluctant was it to be seen favouring one driver over the other.

This year, though, is different. Mercedes is no longer contesting the title between just its drivers, but with Ferrari, and namely Vettel, who is firmly flying the flag for the Scuderia.

Vettel, and Ferrari, repeatedly deny his top dog status, but it has been underlined on more than one occasion this season. In Monaco and Hungary, while still brilliant on his own, Vettel's successful quest for victory was aided by how Ferrari used Kimi Räikkönen – and both times an extra seven points came Vettel's way.

Mercedes, meanwhile, has provided Hamilton and Bottas with equal opportunities – a stance that Hamilton favours, having made multiple digs at Vettel's status within Ferrari.

Mercedes has given tactical orders on a few occasions this year; in Bahrain Bottas waved through Hamilton as the latter unsuccessfully pursued Vettel on an alternative strategy, while in Hungary he did likewise, giving Hamilton a chance of attacking Räikkönen. Hamilton dutifully slotted back in behind Bottas at the flag, commenting: "The heart told me that the right thing to do was to let Valtteri past. 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. But I said at the beginning of the year, I want to win it the right way."

Hamilton's devotion to winning the title "the right way" is commendable, and throughout his career he has been a fair driver – among the statistically greatest racers, he has very few, if any, asterisks to a victory or title claimed in an alleged undeserved fashion. But in a year with small margins and points swings, it may be wise for Mercedes to soon throw its weight behind Hamilton.

Bottas has performed well, considering his late switch to Mercedes, and is fully deserving of a 2018 deal, but is 41 points behind, trails 6-2 in the win stakes and 8-2 in the pole position battle. Bottas has proved more adapt at extracting the maximum on Mercedes' 'off' weekends, but Hamilton more often than not has carried Mercedes' hopes.

Hamilton has taken back-to-back poles and victories since the summer break, but neither he nor Mercedes are fooled into thinking the remaining events will be a walkover. Spa and Monza have long been stomping grounds for Mercedes, and the manufacturer was taken aback by Ferrari's competitiveness in the Ardennes, with Hamilton's brilliant restart tactics a huge influence in denying Vettel victory. A week later at Monza, Hamilton comfortably led a 1-2 – his stunning wet pole lap aiding his prospects – while Ferrari had its worst weekend of the year, a combination of failing to extract the maximum from its package at a circuit not conducive to the SF70-H's strengths. In many ways it was a reverse of Monaco, though Vettel still claimed third position on Ferrari's home soil, limiting the damage as best he could. Aside from Britain and his antics in Baku, Vettel has been there to shadow Mercedes.

Mercedes is braced for a struggle in Singapore – though hopes it will be more competitive than in Monaco/Hungary – and it is not unreasonable to predict a walkover for Vettel, especially once his form around Marina Bay is taken into account. That would give him back in the title lead, with Bottas facing a greater deficit, and fewer races in which to fight back.

Mercedes chief Toto Wolff admitted following the summer break that its options were open, while Bottas commented post-race at Monza that "I'm always going to be a team player and it is up to the team to decide these kind of things, so we'll see".

This is not a slight against Bottas, who has exceeded expectations in his first year with Mercedes and assimilated to a new environment with relative ease. Frequently this year Hamilton has not even needed assistance from Bottas. Italy, in many ways, was perfect for him. He was too quick for Bottas, having built a lead off the back of his own exceptional Q3 performance, while Bottas dutifully came home in second place, in a natural, unmanipulated fashion. However, if there is a scenario in which Bottas is running ahead on track, with Hamilton standing to gain from the Finn moving aside or receiving an experimental strategy, then Mercedes will need to think very carefully about its tactics, for this is a title which could be decided by only a handful of points. 

It may not be pretty, but Mercedes would be well-served if it begins to throw its weight behind Hamilton.

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