Opinion: Hamilton's defiance has given Mercedes a 2017 headache

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After Lewis Hamilton ignored his team's instruction to pick up the pace in the Abu Dhabi title decider, Jonathan Noble considers what the episode means for Mercedes and its intra-team protocols going forward.

There is no such thing as a popular team order in Formula 1. At any time the pit wall gets involved in influencing what is happening out on track, it is usually to change a source of excitement for fans.

But whether it is to call off a race by holding positions; to tell drivers to change place or, as was the case in Abu Dhabi, to urge a driver to up his pace for fear of losing the race, team orders have always been and will always be a necessary evil in motor racing.

And for as long as a ‘team’ comprises two drivers, then there will inevitably be times when there is a  conflict of interest between one of those men in the cockpit and the wider interests of their bosses.

Lewis Hamilton’s actions on Sunday, in defying instructions from the pit wall to pick up the pace amid concerns that Sebastian Vettel was going to surge through to win, was one of those occasions, and it is no surprise it has polarised opinion.

On the one hand, there are those who believe he did totally the correct thing – because as a racer and the leader it was his right to dictate the pace in a manner that was going to give him the only chance of winning the championship.

Countering that is the view is that his defiance was petulant and selfish, as it served to put his interests above those of a team whose only focus was winning the race.

Both arguments are perfectly valid on this occasion, and both sides perfectly justified in their stance There is no definitive right and wrong answer for this one – so the two sides of the debate are simply going to have to agree to disagree.

But what Hamilton did on Sunday goes much deeper than a simple one-off tactic to win the title, for it is not just about personal desire in a championship showdown. It challenges the very philosophy that Mercedes has operated to since the start of 2014, when it became clear that its drivers would be battling for the championship.

At every step of the way – including last weekend – there have been frameworks in place that both men have bought in to as it has left them free to race. And they have helped Hamilton to as much success as he may feel the ‘push’ ordered appeared to hurt him on Sunday.

To believe that both men are free to do what they want do in races is wrong – because there have had to be clear protocols and agreements in place to ensure that their rivalry is as free as possible, and as fair as possible, without it hindering the team.

One of these agreements, for example, relates to the timing of pitstops. Since 2014, the team has had a procedure in place, which was there on Sunday too, that the race leader gets priority on the ideal pitstop strategy to prevent getting overtaken at the stops by the other car.

Without that agreement in place, Mercedes would end up having it men in a constant battle to pit first (or second if the advantage is to go longer).

Were they left free to stop when they wanted, then the drivers would inevitably take things to the extreme: putting themselves onto the wrong strategy simply to get advantage over the other silver car – and that would leave the door open for another team to take the best strategy and the win.

That pitstop protocol was as valid on Sunday as it has been at the 20 other races this year, and can you imagine the controversy that would have been caused (and what Hamilton’s reaction would have been) if Rosberg had gone rogue and contrived to pit first at the second stop, got the undercut and emerge in the lead to seal his championship.

Would such an action be as justified as Hamilton’s defiance of orders to speed up? After all, it’s the final race of the championship and everything is fair game, isn’t it?

Indeed, Hamilton on the one hand was more than happy for team ‘orders’ to help him early in the race with him getting the better pitstop strategy - because it meant being in the lead guaranteed he would emerge in front at the stops - but was not happy when the protocol about guaranteeing the win clashed with his own title interests.

And is defiance of team orders more justifiable in a title-deciding race than it is at any other race of the championship, where just as many points are at stake?

Let’s cast our minds back to Monaco this year where Hamilton ended up stuck behind a slower Rosberg  after the stops – and Mercedes’ alarm bells were ringing that the team was at risk of losing the race win to Daniel Ricciardo.

The order came for Rosberg – then leading the world championship – to let his title rival Hamilton through. He did not hesitate to move aside, opening the door for Hamilton’s eventual victory.

Had he been as defiant as Hamilton on Sunday, and held his teammate behind at the flag, then the points swing would have been enough to have meant the championship did not even go as far as Abu Dhabi.

And would fans have defended Rosberg’s actions there as much as they have Hamilton’s in Abu Dhabi?

The huge philosophical implications of what happened on Sunday are the very reason why Mercedes’ management were so frustrated – because in ignoring the orders, Hamilton has challenged a philosophy that the outfit has had in place for the past three years.

Should Rosberg now ignore an instruction to move aside for Hamilton if it comes again? Should he be tempted to grab the undercut if he is ever running in second? After Abu Dhabi, things are no longer crystal clear.

The response is not straightforward, and it’s no surprise that Mercedes is still weighing up its response. We can forget talk of major disciplinary action for Hamilton, and don’t imagine for one second that Mercedes will adopt a strategy – like a free-for-all – that will risk it wins down the road.

But should it elect it cannot carry on with its current policy, and it’s time to lock down the racing with more orders, then we will all end up being losers from what happened on Sunday.

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About this article
Series Formula 1
Event Abu Dhabi GP
Track Yas Marina Circuit
Drivers Lewis Hamilton
Teams Mercedes
Article type Commentary