Lewis Hamilton and George Russell nearly came to blows twice at the 2023 Japanese Grand Prix on a weekend where Toto Wolff was probably sitting at home either seething at his drivers or with a wry smile, knowing he has two very motivated drivers.
If Hamilton and Russell raced how they did for the lead though, there’s no doubt Wolff would have been livid. It’s understood that the Mercedes boss, who wasn’t at Suzuka due to knee surgery, got on the phone to order the team to tell Russell to let Hamilton through.
It’s the second race running where team orders has come into question and Mercedes are going to have a massive problem if they get into title contention in 2024 or 2025.
Hamilton was too aggressive
Hamilton was in a very attacking mood in Japan as he showed when Russell overtook him following the safety car restart for debris.
But, Hamilton fought back immediately which was great to see, except there was a small jink to the right going into Turn 1 just before he swooped around the outside of his teammate.
That was a signal of intent from the seven-time world champion, who later made a mistake at the second Degner of Turn 9 as he ran wide.
This put Russell on Hamilton’s tail through the hairpin and going towards Turn 11 at Spoon Curve. Hamilton went to the inside and Russell tried to bravely go around the outside, only to be forced wide.
If Hamilton made this move against a driver from a different team, the stewards would surely look at it and probably penalise him.
“I was definitely aggressive, but I think it was good racing,” Hamilton told the media.. “Honestly I shouldn’t really have been in that position.
“But I think I’ve picked up a little something on the right front and it just kept snipping the front right at the last corner and Turn 9. Then it wouldn’t turn through the hairpin.
“All weekend I’ve been good through there, but I was turning and nothing was happening. Definitely struggled on track with the balance. But it was a good battle, a little bit aggressive, but it was what was needed to get position.”
Hamilton has been exposed by some of the younger drivers such as Max Verstappen, Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz. However, he dished out some of that aggressive medicine on Sunday to his teammate, which is something that usually never ends well.
Interestingly, Russell wasn’t against Hamilton‘s moves, perhaps thinking he may return the favour later down the line somewhere.
“I view that as good hard racing,” Russell told the media. “The fact that we were in a position to be put him under pressure and make the moves on him, I was happy with.
“So I’ll take the positives. The pace of the car on my side was, I thought, really strong considering how difficult the car was to drive this weekend.
“It’s just hard, fair racing. Of course, we lost a bit of overall time fighting one another and you are a bit frustrated on the radio. That’s just part of racing.”
Hamilton correct on team orders call
With six laps to go, Hamilton creeped up to the back of Russell as the pair found themselves on the same piece of track after going down different strategy routes.
Hamilton spent two laps stuck behind Russell, who wanted to try the DRS train tactic so he wasn’t vulnerable to Sainz.
Eventually, he let Hamilton through and was inevitably overtaken by Sainz. Given the younger Brit finished seven seconds behind Sainz at the chequered flag, it was highly unlikely both Mercedes could finish ahead of the Ferrari driver no matter what they tried.
In reaction to the team orders, Russell referred to the incident when Hamilton forced him off earlier in the race and said the least Hamilton could do was play the team game.
Mercedes communications director Bradley Lord told Sky Sports F1: “They race each other hard on track, so I think it’s always easy to read a lot into those radio messages in the heat of the moment.
“As always, we do the talking about it a little bit out of the pressure and out of the high temperatures of the cockpits in the engineering debrief afterwards.”
Hamilton and Russell will collide
For the neutral, it’s brilliant to see an inter-team scrap on the track. However, Mercedes know all to well about teammates falling out after three years of Nico Rosberg and Hamilton knocking blows out of each other.
Hamilton and Russell have only made minor contact a few times during their year-and-a-half together, but the way they race each other and talk on the radio almost guarantees a collision at some point.
They are very evenly matched too, so will take points from one another, so if Mercedes are in a close title fight with another team, this will be a massive issue.
Mercedes have the best driver line-up on the grid but it’s going to bite them hard one day and there is nothing they can do about two highly motivated racing drivers going at it.