“Final warning? Those words have not been used…,” said Nico Rosberg when quizzed on the threat of sanctions hanging over himself and Mercedes-AMG F1 team-mate Lewis Hamilton should they crash into each other again.
When the journalist asking the question during the team’s pre-British Grand Prix press briefing at Silverstone pointed out that team boss Toto Wolff had used those exact words not more than 10 minutes before in his own media scrum, Rosberg glanced at the team’s press officer, who nodded in confirmation. Then with a raised eyebrow and a schoolboy grin, the world championship leader said: “That doesn’t sound good!” Cue laughs all around.
For Mercedes the fact that its drivers are frequently colliding is no laughing matter. The accident on the final lap of the Austrian Grand Prix, where Rosberg forced Hamilton long into the outside of the hairpin at turn two, whereby the two of them then made contact, infuriated the Stuttgart hierarchy.
Not so much because of the points it cost Rosberg by dropping to fourth, nor even the 10sec penalty and reprimand he received. “We didn’t like the manouvre because it could have ended up in a double DNF and we would really have looked silly and they know that,” said Wolff.
The days following the third incident between the two in the last five races (they crashed out in Barcelona and significantly hindered each other at turn one in Canada) have been rife with speculation about whether, finally, some form of team orders might be established by Mercedes. And on Thursday, following another private team meeting, both drivers were placed in no doubt that a further indiscretion would incur sanctions.
“If it would happen again, which is entirely in their hands, it would be something that would have a negative outcome for their campaign,” declared Wolff. “This is the final warning.”
The details of both the new ‘rules of engagement’ and the range of sanctions the team is prepared to levy have not been made public.
Wolff insists the focus is to maintain competition between its drivers and be ultimately competitive as a team while ensuring positive headlines for the three-pointed star. But it is difficult to see what penalties it could impose that would be effective while not also being in detriment to one of these aims.
The options appear to include benching one of the drivers for a race, team orders, or financial penalties. But each of those options has negative implications. Imagine if Rosberg was dropped for the German Grand Prix, or Hamilton for Austin; that would hurt Mercedes’ image and bring into question whether the championship was being manipulated, which, as Ferrari found out in Austria in 2002, tends to prove unpopular with the masses.
It could also damage the relationship between driver and team and unquestionably degrade Mercedes’ chances of placing both cars on the podium because it is unlikely to find a driver able to sync quickly enough with car and team seamlessly.
Team orders would have a similarly negative PR effect. With the advantage that Mercedes currently enjoys over its competition, its cars holding station would effectively eliminate the drama within a race and lead to negative fan reaction – with the manufacturer potentially taking the brunt of that backlash.
Then one has to ask what financial penalty could you levy on two millionaire racers that would genuinely stop them taking a risk they believed would lead them to a world title?
Wolff will have considered these aspects. He has grasp enough of F1 lore to understand the ramifications of meddling. But his first responsibility as a team co-owner, is not F1, or the fans, but the Mercedes brand.
“I think we had more press around Mercedes, Formula 1 and the controversy, and we have given real narrative after last weekend and it’s a fine balance,” he said. “My job here is to secure wins and championships in the least detrimental or the most positive way for Mercedes-Benz. If the drivers crash three times in five races, that is not positive any more and is risking our main objective, which is to win the championship. I understand the importance of headlines for F1 and it’s great, but it is not an easy task.
“The drivers are the heroes and I wouldn’t want to change their wiring, this is the essence, and in a couple of years we will be looking back and saying Rosberg/Hamilton was one of the iconic, one of the best fights, similar to Senna and Prost. I’m very aware of that and I don’t want to over-manage it and try to extinguish the whole thing.”
This is encouraging. Mercedes has good form in handling this situation, as proven by the wise approach it took after the Spanish GP shunt. But you can’t help but wonder whether either Alain Prost or Ayrton Senna would have stood to be sanctioned by any team.
For that matter, it’s hard to imagine Lewis Hamilton, in particular, doing so either.
“I think our destiny has always been in our hands, so it doesn't really change anything,” said the British ace, gunning for his fourth home victory this weekend. “We're still able to race, and obviously in those races the stewards deemed me racing, so we... I... will still race like that.”
Asked what he would do if he was managing Mercedes’ drivers, Hamilton summed it up: “I would want them to race, that's for sure, and I wouldn't bring in team orders because racing is why I'm here and why I'd want to be there: to see the guys race.
“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 one-two finishes we've had.”
Let’s hope, for the sake of the championship, that they are allowed to continue fighting, because that’s how it should be.