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.