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Formula 1

Mercedes was right to deny Russell's Hamilton team order wish

by Josh Suttill, Scott Mitchell-Malm
7 min read

The Japanese Grand Prix showed Lewis Hamilton and George Russell are finally delivering on some of the intra-team fireworks that the formation of such a tantalisingly good Formula 1 driver line-up promised last year.

They went line astern fighting Ferrari for victory last weekend in Singapore and while in Japan the positions they were fighting for were lower, the intensity of their team radio frustration was arguably even greater.

The Race understands it was Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff who ultimately ruled that Russell let Hamilton through in the closing stages when the strategists were debating whether to order a reversal of the cars or agree to Russell's request that Hamilton stay behind until the last lap so they could resist Carlos Sainz's Ferrari together.

The broadcast of fraught radio traffic over that situation and an almost-messy earlier wheel-to-wheel battle put a new spotlight on Russell and Hamilton's relationship. While their very sensible post-race comments played it all down, it didn't make what unfolded during the race any less fascinating. And ultimately Mercedes played this one right.


Russell was the only driver to attempt a one-stopper and was holding onto fifth place on ageing hard tyres when he was caught by team-mate Hamilton - whose hards were 10 laps fresher - with eight laps to go.

Hamilton warned his Mercedes team that “we’re going to lose both of these positions” if Russell didn’t let him through. Then just one lap later Hamilton was reassured “George has been instructed, we will swap positions into Turn 1”.

Russell wasn’t so keen, though.

“Why don’t we invert on the last lap and he just stays in DRS like last week unless he’s fighting for a bigger result?” came the plea. But the decision was already made: "So it’s an instruction George, swap positions".

That's because this was a situation unlike that of Singapore where Sainz successfully towed surprise ally Lando Norris's McLaren so they could both keep the chasing Mercedes drivers at bay.

Overtaking there was much tougher than at Suzuka where a decent tyre advantage - which both Hamilton and Sainz had over Russell - was a sure enough ticket for a comfortable pass all Sunday long.

Mercedes - and Wolff - recognised that and clearly didn’t want to risk Sainz picking off both cars, even if it meant leaving Russell as easy meat for Sainz as a result.

Mercedes had already forecast this logic on Saturday evening too with Andrew Shovlin admitting “we’re getting to a stage of the championship where strategically we’re going to have to keep an eye on Ferrari”.

It was the safer, pragmatic choice and all but guaranteed Mercedes had a car finishing ahead of one Ferrari, minimising the swing in the constructors’ championship with Ferrari clipping Mercedes’ margin in second place from 24 points to 20.

On the lap after he overtook his team-mate, Hamilton did slow down enough through 130R to give Russell DRS to defend against Sainz but Russell was also limping relatively by the time of the chicane. The tyres cried out when he got on the throttle out of the chicane and Sainz easily had him on the run to Turn 1.

“We wasted all that time for no reason,” was Hamilton’s initial verdict over the radio and he doubled down on that after the race.


“If we had inverted [earlier] maybe George would have had a better time holding [Sainz] behind,” Hamilton said.

“But because he was trying to fight me, damaging my tyres, I think it just made it all complicated.

“The fact is we’re not fighting each other in the drivers’ championship, as drivers it’s not important where we are, what’s important is that one of us finishes ahead of the Ferrari to keep the position.

“So today we really needed to work as a team.”

He added that “it made no sense” for him to give Russell DRS because Hamilton “needed to get as far clear ahead as possible”.

After the race, Russell conceded his tyres “were toast by the end” and said there were “zero hard feelings” and that “the team made the right call”.

He reiterated Hamilton and the team’s view that the constructors’ fight versus Ferrari takes precedence over their own intra-team scrap.


Of course that didn’t stop Russell and Hamilton from racing hard early in the grand prix, when the Mercedes drivers almost came to blows.

Russell overtook Hamilton into the chicane at the end of lap five only for Hamilton to repass him down the straight with a speed differential that perplexed Russell: “Not too sure how we lost out on the straight there".

Then at the end of Hamilton’s first stint, he ran wide out of Degner 2 - having struggled there all race long due to opening lap damage - and allowed Russell to have a look around the outside of him at the sweeping Spoon left-hander before the back straight.

Hamilton barely made that corner with his tyres fading and that left Russell with no choice but to run off the track.

“Who do we want to fight here? Each other or the others?” was Russell’s exasperated radio response.

And it was firmly still in Russell’s mind at the end of the race when he needed Hamilton to give him DRS after letting him through: “[Hamilton needs] to play the team game [and give me DRS], he pushed me off the track earlier, it’s the least he can do.”

Russell had cooled after the race, brushing it off as “just hard, fair racing” and calling his team radio a “release valve because it’s so hot in the car, it’s a long race, you’re there pushing for an hour and a half, you’re fighting every inch". Hamilton admitted he was “definitely aggressive” but agreed it was “good racing”.


Ultimately both drivers flirted with disaster but it’s hard to conclusively point to either their early-race skirmishes or late-race team orders significantly costing them positions in the race.

The team took a pragmatic and conservative approach, letting its drivers race early on and then intervening later to secure the positions it felt it could.

Russell holding Hamilton in his DRS at the end would have been a higher-risk, higher-reward approach that had the potential downside of Mercedes' quicker car losing out if it cost Hamilton time and left him more vulnerable to Sainz when he needn't have been. Letting Hamilton by increased the chance of Sainz passing Russell but reduced the chance of Sainz passing both Mercedes.

Sainz admitted when he saw the Mercedes together ahead he assumed they would work to give each other DRS and felt that might make his life harder.

When asked for his thoughts on what Mercedes should have done, he began "maybe they had a better chance, honestly speaking, if Lewis had stayed behind" but then as he considered the situation further he felt actually Mercedes holding position could've given him a better chance to pass both - especially as he felt overtaking Hamilton on track in normal circumstances wasn't realistic given their relative pace.

"I would have tried a move on Lewis [if he'd stayed behind]," said Sainz.

"George was very slow in the esses and [Turn] 8/9, so I would have tried into 11 because they were both very slow there.

"We will never know but I think it would have been riskier to leave Lewis behind because if I took Lewis I'd also take George."

And the early-race near-misses didn't actually cost either driver significant race time - a second or two at most. That would've made no difference to their chances of challenging Charles Leclerc for fourth, and Sainz would've caught them at the end regardless.

Beating Ferrari is clearly the priority for the team but that's never going to stop two hungry drivers from fighting tooth and nail for every position in the heat of the moment, particularly given the current dynamic at Mercedes.

Russell is frustrated having - by his own admission - far from the season he wanted with his position in the drivers' championship now "out of the window totally" given he's 75 points behind Hamilton.

Both drivers are signed through to the end of 2025 so Russell has long been well aware that he's going to have to wrestle the edge over Hamilton rather than simply waiting for him to retire and slot comfortably into the 'team leader' role.

That's inevitably going to cause further tension and flashpoints further down the road.

For now, both drivers and the team are toeing the line well and keeping on the right side of the thin line between a good-natured elbows-out intra-team rivalry and an intra-team implosion. Even if it doesn't always sound like it on team radio.

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