🇮🇹 F1'24: R7: A revealing late-race choice

Intra-team dynamics are fascinating, especially at Mercedes

Normal service seems to have been resumed. Occasional F1 driver, three-time and reigning F1 World Champion and sim racing connoisseur Max Verstappen reminded people who the boss is by all-but disappearing from the TV broadcast of F1’s return to Imola, seeing off the challenge of Ferrari and McLaren, both resurgent and confident that they can fill at least one spot on the podium, with Lando Norris almost grabbing a second consecutive race victory.

But despite Norris pushing…er… to the Max (sorry), the most intriguing story happened just below that, with a late-race gambit from Mercedes. So often the team at the front in the last era, podium finishes have become more of a rarity at the team, with George Russell looking to hold the mantle of team leader ahead of a departing Lewis Hamilton, Russell attempting to convince the team that hey, you can bring in Kimi Antonelli! It’s ok! I’m the leader now! You don’t need Carlos Sainz or another experienced threat.

So it was perhaps a little bit surprising that Mercedes pitted Russell on lap 53 for a set of mediums. Tyre degradation was the cited reason and when the tyres were fitted, he flew around the track, but it was a little bit too late to make an impact on track position, meaning that Mercedes gained a point for fastest lap (to Russell) but the driver lost a point to his teammate.

Is this subscribe button far enough away from the awful “to the Max” joke?

It’s the right, unemotional call if you take the human element out, but it’s a fascinating look at team dynamics. The departing legend was given the higher priority for track position, with the team still getting 14 points for sixth and seventh, but switching the order to get that extra point for the fastest tour of Imola.

F1 teams famously don’t normally care in what order their drivers finish in, as long as they get the points. A temporarily bruised ego doesn’t normally compare to the millions of dollars on offer for each place in the Teams’ Championship.

And this is doubly intriguing when you consider the reports that Lewis Hamilton is helping Mercedes with feedback for their 2025 plans. I’ve likened it to an employee serving out their notice. When I was doing that during my last job, I was absolutely not as hardcore as Hamilton, who is every part a dream employee for his departing team. Despite no longer being the future at Mercedes, he is perhaps still being treated as the present.

@mercedesamgf1

European races = the spiral staircase is back 😍🎥 #F1 #MercedesAMGF1 #Mercedes #lewishamilton #ImolaGP

I suppose when you’re the driver with literally every record in the book, getting access to that knowledge - even on an expiring basis - is still well worth it to Mercedes. But even though this switch was borne out of necessity, and can be justified by giving the team an extra point, does it say something about how Mercedes see their current driver lineup?

Toto Wolff’s squad is currently a comfortable fourth. Not quick enough to threaten McLaren or Ferrari, and Aston Martin have lost their momentum threat really from an Aston Martin team that had a poor weekend, and while the green machine still scores points, it’s normally EITHER Lance Stroll or Fernando Alonso scoring points. In fact, Aston Martin tried a sneaky piece of destruction towards the end of the race with Fernando Alonso going onto a set of softs on lap 61.

While the TV pundits called it pitstop practice, I think it was an attempt from Aston Martin to try and take the point away from Mercedes. It didn’t work. And going back to Russell, if he was seen as the definitive team leader, I think Mercedes are in the position that they will not ultimately miss that extra point, and therefore, this is team orders where things could have perhaps been left alone instead.

The rumours are that Antonelli will be racing in an F1 seat at some point this season, and Logan Sargeant might be the odd man out, with the American currently 21st in a 20-man championship, and his potential replacement currently hasn’t grabbed a podium in his season at the lower level. A dozen drivers have done so far this season, and not all of them are being seen as the next great hope for Mercedes.

So that leaves someone like Carlos Sainz as a potential, title-contending stopgap option if he doesn’t go to Audi. Or another driver who isn’t being talked about yet - perhaps Esteban Ocon could get a life raft from Alpine, loosening up the bottleneck and allowing Jack Doohan to be the third Australian on the grid (assuming nothing else changes!)

This is what a game like F1 Manager fails to capture. I am a massive fan of the fact that F1 Manager is a thing, even if the execution hasn’t really hit the mark over recent years. This year’s edition allows you to - among other things - build a driver stable, and it has also added a feelings system, but it still lacks the emotion that other management games manage to generate. That real-life decision is really difficult to replicate, but while it’s a few clicks in a video game, there really isn’t a way for Mercedes to forecast what might happen, but at some point, they’ve got to move forward, and focus on what they’re gaining, rather than what they are losing.

It’s not all bad news though. Despite other teams taking the spotlight, P6 and P7 marks the first time Mercedes have put both cars in the top-7 since the season opener, and it shows that as a team, they are making progress, but it still feels like this indecision about who will fill Hamilton’s seat is hurting the team. They can’t fully plan for next season, and this late-race decision - despite being told it was to protect the team’s existing places - tells me they have not yet fully committed to the idea of George Russell as the undisputed team leader.

Next up, the annual procession in Monaco on a bank holiday weekend in the UK. A highlight for content creators as these beautiful machines head round the twists and turns of the Principality, and a chance for architects to see how the buildings at Portier are progressing, but as these cars have got bigger, perhaps less so for fans. I suggested that F1 should enforce a rule obliging the drivers to use all three dry weather compounds. Read more about that here.

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