Lewis Hamilton may have just extended his already comfortable championship lead over Sebastian Vettel to a commanding 50 points with victory at the Russian Grand Prix, but he wasn’t happy about it.
The Briton had been the second-best Mercedes driver all weekend. Valtteri Bottas, always a strong performer at the Sochi Autodrom, had qualified on pole and comfortably controlled the first stint of the race, putting him on track to record his first victory of the season.
The only problem was that Bottas wasn’t in the championship fight.
With Vettel starting from third and threatening not only Hamilton’s finishing position but Bottas’s victory, the question of which Mercedes driver would be allowed to win the race given the title equation was asked almost immediately after qualifying.
Mercedes revealed its answer on lap 25. Bottas was ordered to move aside for his teammate, who swept into the lead and went on to take the chequered flag.
But where celebrations should have been expected for Hamilton’s 70th F1 victory there was only melancholy.
“It’s actually quite a difficult day,” Hamilton said, the conflict in his face obvious. “Usually you would be just elated, but I can understand how difficult it is for Valtteri — he did a fantastic job today and he deserved to win.
“It’s never, ever in my whole life been the way I’ve wanted to win a race.”
Bottas, utterly downcast for having what should have been an easy win taken away from him, acknowledged the awkwardness of the result.
“A difficult day,” he mused. “Obviously a good result for us as a team — we got the maximum points — but personally, as everyone saw, it was quite a difficult race.”
The call was publicly divisive, but as Bottas correctly summarised post-race, it was a grand prix strategy designed only to benefit the team and its campaign to win its fifth consecutive constructors-drivers championship double.
The difference to Hamilton’s points total may have been negligible — the difference between first and second is seven points — but there was a threat, even if only minor, to Mercedes’s one-two finish had the call not been made to switch drivers.
A strategy error had briefly lost Hamilton second place to Vettel at his first pit stop on lap 14, and though he was able to take the position back just two laps later, he damaged his rear-left tyre in the process, creating a weakness for Vettel to exploit late in the race.
Switching Bottas into the defensive therefore not only pushed Hamilton even closer to a surely inevitable fifth world championship, it also ensured Vettel was kept at bay to secure the best result for the team.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie sometimes, and it’s me today,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “What do I opt for: to be the baddie on Sunday evening, or do I want to be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season?”
That big-picture thinking was more important to Mercedes than Bottas winning a race that would prove either a footnote in his teammate’s championship-winning season or a potential own-goal should some catastrophe befall Hamilton’s title charge.
As a result, Vettel’s imposing 50-point deficit is seemingly insurmountable, but with what is forecast to be a typhoon-affected Japanese Grand Prix next on 7 October, the German is taking the dying days of the season one race at a time.
“I still believe in our chances,” he said. “Who knows — it takes one DNF (non-finish for Hamilton) and then all of a sudden things look different.”
But after Mercedes’s most complete result since May’s Spanish Grand Prix, it would be brave to bet on anyone but Hamilton sealing the deal in the last five races of the 2018 season.