ALEXIA’S TAKE: How did Mercedes avoid a ‘Verstappen/Perez’ situation?

© Jiri Krenek for Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix Ltd.

By Alexia Tibil

“[…] yeah, hopefully that shows I am a team player, I’m a man of my word.”

  • Lewis Hamilton in a post-race interview at the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix.

Lights went out for one final time in Abu Dhabi as Formula One saw its 2022 season come to a close after a series of 22 races, but it was not without a few moments that are worth going over once more.

The Sao Paulo Grand Prix not only marked Mercedes’ first victory in an assuredly “up and down” season for the whole team, but also the beginning of some heated controversies within Oracle Red Bull Racing. With Max Verstappen’s title already being sealed back at Suzuka, the next races to come afterwards promised to be filled with some great wheel to wheel action, as P2 in both Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships were still up for grabs.

And so, if we were to take a look at the driver standings right after the Mexican Grand Prix, we could see that going into the penultimate race of the season (the Sao Paulo Grand Prix), Perez would have a 5 point lead over Scuderia Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. With this in mind, and the fact that every point counts as has been proven every year, Perez would eventually need a solid result in Brazil. However, the weekend turned out to be anything but smooth sailing for Red Bull. Starting the race on Sunday with Verstappen and Perez lining up P5 and P6, after an eventful couple of first laps and a few safety cars, towards the end of the race Perez ended up behind a struggling Verstappen, after the Dutch driver was involved in an incident with Hamilton at the beginning of the race. A swap in position would have meant that Perez would head to the final race in Abu Dhabi with a 2 point lead over Leclerc. However, to everyone’s surprise, the team orders for Verstappen to give up his P5 rattled the whole paddock. When the order was first given, Max was silent, and even when it was repeated the Dutch driver did not respond. Once he reached the chequered flag, without ceding position to Perez, the team asked him: “Max, what happened?”

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“I told you already last time you guys, don’t ask that again to me,” the Dutchman said.

“Okay? Are we clear about that? I gave my reasons and I stand by it,” he concluded.

When asked about the chaos at Red Bull, former Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas had his say on the events:

“With things like this, communication is key. I’ve learned over the years discussing pre-determined scenarios often makes things much easier rather than having it happen during the race.

“It comes as a surprise then and the driver is not prepared. That makes it difficult to accept, so communication is the most important [part].

“It also depends on the situation. Is it about a position in the championship or are you aiming for that with a certain strategy?

“All these things come into play,” Bottas concluded.

If we were to analyze the dynamic between Verstappen and Perez, one thing is crystal clear – whenever told to, Perez would always obey a team order. Circling back to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Perez showed immense team player behaviour, when he successfully managed to hold off Hamilton and take a good amount of seconds off of his lead. But, as we’ve seen in Brazil, when roles are reversed and Perez is the one in need of help from his team-mate, things tend to get heated. Hence the whole uncomfortable Sao Paulo Grand Prix aftermath for Red Bull.

Making a parallel with the dynamic between the drivers within Mercedes, although there have been a number of occasions in which neither of the drivers properly obeyed an order, there has never been such a stir caused by anyone in the team. For instance, let’s take the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix for example. We have Hamilton’s then title rival Sebastian Vettel leading the race, his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen sitting P2, and Valtteri Bottas in P3. Being on somewhat fresher and better managed tyres than his team-mate, Hamilton, who was P4 at the time, asked the team to swap places in order to attempt an overtake on Raikkonen. When the team told Bottas, he immediately obeyed. Not being able to eventually overtake Raikkonen for a second place, Hamilton again swapped places with Bottas in the last lap, and returned the position to his team-mate, although each point would have helped Hamilton’s title fight. Even in his final year with the team, Bottas opted for being “the best team-mate out there”, knowing that Lewis’ chances for winning the championship were much higher.

Of course, there have been tense moments between them as well, but none of those moments led to controversies or heated discussions between the pairing. The 2018 Russian Grand Prix saw the drivers being put face to face with team orders none of them knew prior about, and the race that was supposed to be undoubtedly won by Bottas, was won by Hamilton after team orders were given.

In every top team, whenever team orders are put on the table, friction can be felt between the drivers, no question about it. The last few years have shown that while Bottas was mostly put to such orders, these only came when he was ‘out of contention’ for the Championship, and never at the beginning of a season. Such things can be hardly seen at Red Bull.

When it comes to 2022, there were a couple of notable moments in which Mercedes drivers were free to race each other, only being told to “show respect” whilst going wheel to wheel. On the other hand, at the 2022 Spanish Grand Prix for example, we have seen that Perez was visibly disappointed by yet another set of team orders that would not allow him to race Max. We could say that these are “normal” things back at the Red Bull garage, but the tensions between these two seemed to reach a boiling point in Sao Paulo.

Every keen observer of Formula 1 knows that it is all about the right strategy, it’s about making your way up the grid as much as you can, but it’s also a team effort in all respects. Although different top teams operate in different ways when it comes to how the handle their driver dynamics, one thing is for sure for all of them – the less internal friction, the better. And, on top of that, teamwork definitely does make the dream work.

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