F1 free-for-all for Bottas, Hamilton but Mercedes wary of conflict

In contrast to Ferrari, where team orders have been used frequently this season, Mercedes has handed responsibility to the drivers and not felt any need to ask them to hold positions.

Lewis Hamilton (L) and Valtteri Bottas (R) after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.   -  Getty Images

Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff has confirmed that the victorious Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are free to fight for success without the restraints of team orders, as they showed in their scrap to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The pair battled wheel to wheel on the opening lap on Sunday and were fighting hard again in the closing stages when defending champion Hamilton put Bottas under pressure as they closed out an unprecedented fourth consecutive season-opening one-two triumph.

READ | Mercedes makes history as Bottas leads Hamilton home in Baku

In contrast to Ferrari, where team orders have been used frequently this season, Mercedes has handed responsibility to the drivers and not felt any need to ask them to hold positions.

“We let them race,” said Wolff. “They are experienced. They know that the racing must be clean. Lap one was very clean -- and this is a track where we mustn't take crazy risks because you could lose both cars.

“When we talk to them, it's always open and everyone can hear them, but then, obviously, you have the intercom too which is only an internal line. But I was not talking to the drivers. If I push the driver button, I know it myself -- so I am not giving myself permission to talk to them because I get emotional and then, sometimes, regret what I say.”

Instead, said Wolff, his pit-wall team holds a discussion about its strategy and how the race is unfolding.

“We acknowledged that it could get a little bit racy at the end, but we didn't talk to them.”

Mercedes' Valtteri Bottas leading teammate Lewis Hamilton during the Azerbaijan grand prix.   -  Getty Images

 

Cautious of a Nico-Lewis repeat

However, Wolff hopes he will not have to deal with any infighting if the relationship between Hamilton and Bottas deteriorates, in a repeat of the conflict between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg when they fought it out for the title.

"It reminds me a little bit [of 2014, 2015 and 2016]," said Wolff. "You have two drivers that have the ambition and the ability to win a championship and it's up to us, together with them, to be very aware of that situation and remember that very quickly [Sebastian] Vettel or [Charles] Leclerc could be back into the game."

The German added: "And definitely the relationship matters in order to avoid what we went through between Nico and Lewis.

READ | Hamilton rues being 'too friendly' to Bottas

"We are lucky that they have a very good relationship. They get on with each other, there is not a lot of games in the background. And I'm very happy about that. But as a matter of fact, we have to be conscious. We have seen relationships deteriorate. Both of the drivers, the respect needs to stay there.

Former Mercedes teammates Nico Rosberg (L) and Lewis Hamilton (R) in the post qualifying press conference for the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.   -  Getty Images

 

"We're very strong as a team and we wouldn't allow the relationship between drivers to deteriorate to a point that it has a negative effect on the team. If that would ever be the case, again after Nico and Lewis we would issue yellow and red cards. But we are not there."

Amazing

Mercedes' success on the streets of Baku made it the first team in modern times to reel off four season-opening one-twos.

Ferrari had six consecutive one-twos in 1952 when the world championship included, officially, the Indianapolis 500, which it did not enter as it was run under different regulations. The American event was the second race of the calendar and predictably was dominated by American teams and drivers who took no part in the rest of the series.

The modern Mercedes team enjoyed 12 one-twos overall in 2015, but was beaten by Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari at the second race held in Malaysia.

“It's amazing that we can break a record now in our sixth year, trying to push the boundaries, but also trying to keep both feet on the ground and not to be too self-confident,” said Wolff. “It's fantastic.”

After four races this season, Bottas and Hamilton have two wins apiece with the Finn ahead by one point courtesy of the fastest lap he clocked at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

RELATED | Bottas: History-making Mercedes at incredible level

Hamilton admitted he faced a much stronger team-mate this year than last after Sunday's race.

“Valtteri has really stepped up this year,” he said. “He is happy in the car and he is driving fantastically well. It is going to take a really great performance to out-perform him.”

His words echoed the feelings of Ferrari team chief Mattia Binotto.

After seeing Vettel finish third behind the Mercedes men, he conceded: “Four races into the season, obviously they are very strong - no wins for Ferrari and four for Mercedes...

“But I think that the gap is not as big as the points suggest. Certainly, they have a slightly better car, but the positions don't really show our true potential.”

(With inputs from Omnisport)

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