Despite a contemporary classic on Sunday in Hungary, the main story dominating the major Formula 1 websites as well as the sports sections of newspapers on Monday was not Daniel Ricciardo’s stunning drive to win an absolute thrilling Hungarian Grand Prix, but the debate over Lewis Hamilton’s decision to ignore the orders of his Mercedes team.
Hamilton, who produced a stormer of a drive to finish third having started from the pitlane after his qualifying fire, has come under scrutiny for his refusal to allow his team-mate and title rival Nico Rosberg past during the race, despite the request of his team.
The German, who led from pole early on, found himself fourth, behind the 2008 champion after losing out badly during the two safety car periods, with a final stop still to make. Yet, for nine laps Rosberg shadowed Hamilton, the latter arguing that the former was not close enough to pass him without ruining his own race.
Rosberg was soon in for his final tyre change, rejoining behind the two Williams cars as well as Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and on fresh rubber sliced his way through the traffic to finish fourth, just half a second behind his team-mate who had earlier refused to let him past.
The question is, was Hamilton right to ignore the orders of his team to let Rosberg by, or should he have conformed to Mercedes’ request and slowed to allow his team-mate through to give chase to the then yet to stop Daniel Ricciardo and the long-running Fernando Alonso.
First and foremost, and judged as a matter of professionalism, Hamilton’s insubordination was out of line. In a team sport, where you win and lose as a part of a team of hundreds, it was a slap in the face to Mercedes to simply dismiss the order.
Team orders, despite their almost universal dislike by fans, exist to be followed, and Hamilton, as an employee of Mercedes should be expected to do as he is told, just as any other team member, be they a mechanic or a senior member of staff, would be expected to do so.
On Sunday Lewis put his desire to succeed beyond that of the wishes of Mercedes, who understandably wanted to record the best joint finish possible, in what was a big faux pas. Yet, Hamilton has escaped any punishment, with the team’s non-executive chairman Niki Lauda going so far as to back Hamilton’s refusal to pull over for his team-mate, an order he says came from a moment of panic for the team, who have been more accustomed to running first and second this season.
Yet, while it is difficult to deny that Hamilton’s indiscipline might have been out of line, was it in fact the right call to make on his part? Simply put, yes it was. Lewis’ defiance worked out perfectly in his favour, coming home third, ahead of his team-mate Rosberg who otherwise would almost undoubtedly of been in contention for the race win.
In maintaining his position in third earlier in the race, and defying the orders of his team, Hamilton cut Rosberg’s lead at the head of the drivers’ championship to 11 points, down from 14, despite his team-mate starting on pole, while he started from the pitlane and spun on the opening lap. Not bad for a days work.
Hamilton’s argument for his defiance during the race was simply that Rosberg was not close enough to pass him – which was evidently true, Rosberg struggling to even break within a second of Hamilton. As the 2008 champion said himself following the event, he feared that allowing his team-mate through at that stage would have released him, enabling the German to come back at him and pass him on fresh tyres during the final laps, which Nico very nearly did, despite the hold up.
With that in mind, one must question Mercedes’ order itself. The idea that the team on the pitwall expected Hamilton – who admitted after the race that he was shocked by the call – to allow his title rival past, while still in contention for the race win, underlines how far from the mark their team order itself was, and goes a long way to explaining why Mercedes quickly dropped the issue after a number of laps, possibly realising their error in judgement.
In light of the result, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff admitted that his team’s pre-season agreement, which while allowing its pair of drivers to race head-to-head, stipulated that neither could choose a radical strategy, may have to be re-evaluated in light of increasing tension in the camp between the two title challengers.
“At the moment, we have a 170-point advantage in the constructors’ championship and maybe it is a moment of loosening it a bit, in agreement with both of them,” said Wolff.
“At the beginning of the season it is easy to say these are the rules and this is how we are going to do it. But now it is clear: these two are fighting for the world championship.
“Maybe we have come to a point where what we had at the beginning of the season doesn’t function anymore, because we cannot ask either driver to give up positions or jeopardise their own campaign and championship chances for the benefit of the team.”
This leaves us with a situation whereby Mercedes, with both world titles now effectively destined for Brackley, could allow both Hamilton and Rosberg to take the gloves off in their battle for the drivers’ crown over the coming months, which could only be a major victory for the sport over the remainder of the season.
Hamilton’s refusal to play ball on Sunday was a win not just for those fans who despise the notion of team orders, but also for Lewis personally, cutting his team-mate’s lead at the head of the drivers’ standings with a champion’s drive.
Furthermore, the Briton’s defiance, which can be expected to now be met by a similar attitude from Nico Rosberg should the roles ever be reversed, also seems set to push Mercedes to remove any pretence of cooperation between the pair, which leaves us with the mouthwatering prospect of an almighty battle between the two team-mates over the remaining eighth races
To conclude, Hamilton was undoubtably wrong to ignore the commands of his team. But was his defiance well-founded? Without question, certainly. In the ilk of a true winner he offered his team-mate no quarter, and defied a call that would in all likelihood have dropped him behind his title rival. Hamilton’s actions have set the tone for the remainder of the season, which right now is building up to be sensational, I can hardly wait for Spa.
Featured image courtesy of Mercedes AMG PETRONAS, text images courtesy of Octane Photographic