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Analysis: Respect for the team is at the heart of Mercedes ultimatum to drivers

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Analysis: Respect for the team is at the heart of Mercedes ultimatum to drivers
Jul 7, 2016, 6:53 PM

A final warning: Toto Wolff certainly means business and both his Mercedes drivers know that if they crash into each other again they will face san...

A final warning: Toto Wolff certainly means business and both his Mercedes drivers know that if they crash into each other again they will face sanctions, which will cost them heavily.

The outcome of Wolff's deliberations on how to prevent his drivers from colliding with each other again after the third serious collision in two years and the fifth in total, were made public this afternoon and the drivers have reacted in the Silverstone paddock.

So what is the situation now between them and why are Mercedes so upset this time?

Lewis Hamilton

Events moved quickly today. Wolff met with both drivers this morning and then after lunch Mercedes made its announcement that they had "strengthened our rules of engagement to include much greater deterrents" and that the drivers' "destiny is in their hands."

Effectively they have put the onus on the drivers to manage the situation, rather than impose team orders, which would have been a PR catastrophe. Everyone remembers the Ferrari dominance of the early 2000s, where team orders were imposed despite the Ferrari having a huge performance advantage over the field. To do that now would destroy any goodwill that exists toward the team that has so dominated F1 lately that they have won 40 races since the start of 2014.

It's the most dominant period in F1 history in many ways, especially given how many races there are in a season these days. But Mercedes don't want the era to be defined or remembered for the collisions between its star drivers. Senna and Prost were the most famous litigious team mates, but they only made contact with each other twice, albeit spectacularly.

Lewis Hamilton Nico Rosberg

The current rivals collided in Spa 2014 with Hamilton retiring, in Spain this year with both retiring and again in Austria with Rosberg dropping from first to fourth and dropping a further six points.

There has also been contact during 'skirmishes' in Montreal this year, Suzuka and Austin last year, but these are considered normal hard racing situations. Avoidable collisions costing points are no longer acceptable.

What incensed Mercedes management about the latest incident was the fact that the mechanics had worked beyond the call of duty to get the cars out on the track. Rosberg's suspension failure on Saturday and subsequent accident (not his fault) meant that Hamilton's mechanics had to get stuck in to repair the car in time for qualifying.

To then have the drivers colliding on the last lap was an act of disrespect to the team and the men and women who work in the shade. It sent Wolff into a fury and demoralised many staff members.

Lewis Hamilton

So why is it happening?

Current estimates put Mercedes still around a second a lap on average ahead of the nearest challengers, depending on circuit configuration so that means that the two drivers are battling each other and rarely anyone else.

The big difference between now and the past two years is that Rosberg has changed his sporting attitude and his mindset and is not prepared to yield. After he was barged in Austin, losing a race and a championship to Hamilton in the process, he came back a different competitor. He won the final races of 2015, but more importantly he seems to have made a promise to himself that with a rare opportunity to have a winning car at his disposal, he can no longer be the nice guy and that means playing hardball. If Hamilton makes a move which forces him to yield or they crash, then they crash. That was Spain.

Austria was different and saw him taking that mindset further. He'd got control of the race, they had been put on different strategies, which enflamed an already tense situation and he simply wasn't prepared to give Hamilton an inch when he came to try an overtake on the last lap.

As Vettel observed this afternoon, the difference from the Senna and Prost rivalry is that Rosberg and Hamilton have known each other since they were kids, raced together and Hamilton was usually the winner. Hamilton has his three world titles; the clock is ticking for Rosberg's time in a winning car and he's determined to make this year his. As Senna used to say, "It has to be my way,"

That's not to say all of this is his fault, merely to observe that this is what has changed from previous years and previous battles. The irresistible force has now come across an immovable object.

“We have had a culmination of accidents in the last couple of races that we somehow need to contain,” Wolff said today at Silverstone

“This is the tricky bit because if you have a yellow card, will it change your way of tackling it or not? Because you know what happens with a second yellow card. It is a scenario that none of us wants to be in.”

"We've had a warning, this is the final warning. Let's consider it like this.

“You know how a driver is calibrated and what is important for a driver – and it is clear that if it would happen again, which is entirely in their hands, it is something that would have a negative outcome for their campaign,”

He added: “Contact between teammates is something that is very difficult for the team internally and we've come to a point that we don't want to spend the days inside of the team analysing how much blame or how much fault we want to attribute to one of the drivers."

Nico Rosberg

So how will it work?

Mercedes has refused to go into details of what the 'deterrents' are but clearly there is a significant financial penalty if a driver is adjudged to have caused another collision with his team mate.

The only logical way to arbitrate that is to take the verdict of the FIA stewards as the judgement. So if there was a repeat of Austria Rosberg would get hammered. But if Spain was repeated, with the Stewards calling it 50-50, would both get fined? Presumably so.

This is likely to be a serious amount of money, not a few thousand euros, otherwise it would not be much of a deterrent to men earning half a million and 2 million euros a month respectively.

What is intriguing is what Wolff means by a sanction which would have "a negative outcome for their campaign".

If your concern with the collisions is that they cost points and gift them to rivals, then the last thing you would want to do as a team is penalise your driver in such a way that the team lost points.

Any sporting sanction must be something that would cost his championship campaign personally, but not the team. I'll leave you to speculate on what that might mean.

Hamilton's reaction was that it will not really change anything, but he was asked how he would approach it if he were a team principal in this situation,

"I’d probably be more understanding that, when you have cars that are racing first and second, there are going to be times, out of 60 races together… I don’t know if it’s five collisions we’ve had, I don’t know how many collisions we’ve had, but it’s a small amount compared to the amount of successful races we’ve had and 1-2s we’ve had. So, that’s me."

Sebastian Vettel

What's the F1 paddock reaction been like?

There are some strong opinions about this, with a number of senior figures in F1 prepared to opine that Mercedes have made themselves look foolish by opening this discussion to public view. It's not very conventional, especially for a manufacturer backed leading F1 team. Normally matters like this would be kept behind closed doors.

Wolff's style of management is entrepreneurial and at times emotional, which is highly unusual in this context. After the Spa collision he said that if the drivers couldn't behave he would have to consider replacing one or both of them. This all gives the media and fans something juicy to bite on and generates immense coverage, compared to throwing a fire blanket over the situation. Time will tell whether or not this is the most effective approach.

Some drivers, like Sebastian Vettel, said that they don't care as it does not regard them. Others like Fernando Alonso said that it's not unusual to have a few collisions when every race, every start and every finish is contested by the same two drivers in a far superior car to the rest of the field.

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