A Clash of Titans
The sight of Toto Wolf slamming his fist as he watched his drivers Lewis Hamilton & Nico Rosberg again come to blows in 2016 could very well represent a clamping down on the open policy the team has towards letting their driver’s race and usher in a change in driver lineup.
In a series of post-race interviews Toto expressed his dislike for team orders but that, in view of recent events, it is on the table as the only way to stop his drivers crashing into each other. Who could blame him? In 2016 the Mercedes drivers have made contact with each other in 3 out of the last 5 races with devastating results. In my estimation Nico’s defensive driving, as far as Hamilton is concerned, has become far more robust. He seemingly has adopted a ‘you shall not pass’ mentality regardless. Lewis, who has suffered with reliability issues and poor starts in 2016 has been willing to take risks he otherwise may not have done had he been closer to Rosberg on points.
The events of yesterday, so fresh in the memory, do not need to be re-described here. What is relevant to point out is that pundits and stewards alike blamed Rosberg for the incident. Mercedes, haven’t been so quick to pass judgement, but I suspect they too will place the blame on Nico for costing the team a certain 1–2 finish.
Team orders are now on the table and it’s hard to imagine what else the drivers could do to not warrant their implementation. Given they collided on the first lap in Spain and on the last lap in Austria it seems only a total ban on racing would guarantee that the two wouldn’t crash into each other again. McLaren had a similar agreement in 1998, he who reached the first corner first wouldn’t be challenged. Any arrangement where the drivers were allowed to race until a certain point, a tactic Red Bull employed in days gone by, would be a distinction that makes no difference from what we see now. And such rules leave you open to what happen in Malaysia 2013 where Vettle ignored team orders and passed Webber.
I think the team will seriously be considering the direction they go with their driver line-up for 2017 and beyond. Lewis is under contract and Nico’s negotiations for next year are focused around the length of his extension (Mercedes pushing for 1 year and Nico wanting 2). Talk in the paddock suggested they were in the final stages of negotiations but I foresee a stalling until a decision is made on team orders and how that beds in.
It’s unlikely that they wouldn’t want to re-sign Nico who has won 19 Grand Prix for Mercedes (the most by anyone who hasn’t won a World Championship). But there is a talented understudy waiting in the wings and he amazingly scored points for Manor in Austria, Pascal Wehrlein. We may see Mercedes push harder for a 1 year extension with Nico with a view to replacing him for 2018. Or they could, a la Red Bull and Verstappen, hurry Pascal’s promotion on and bring him in for 2017 but with a clear number 2 status to Hamilton. With new aero rules for 2017 and their other competitors on a par with Mercedes in terms of combustible engines, the Brackley based outfit will not likely be able to afford dropping points as they have done this season due to their drivers crashing with each other.
Lewis’s two world titles, unquestionable superiority as a racer and marketability compared to Nico makes his position safe with the silver arrows. The Nico/Lewis pairing may not have reached breaking point just yet but one more incident could smash the partnership in two.