Williams Martini Racing found itself trapped between a rock and a hard place during Sunday’s British Grand Prix, following what had been a “start of the season” contender from both its drivers, Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas.
Essentially, it couldn’t win – both on-track or in the court of public opinion – by staying true to its morals and core values Sir Frank Williams has instilled for nearly the better part of 40 years.
Rare is the chance in modern day Formula 1 when Mercedes AMG Petronas is vulnerable.
The team won the last seven Grands Prix of 2014 and eight of the first nine to open the 2015 Formula 1 season.
In that 15-of-16 streak that matches the run achieved by McLaren in its all-conquering 1988 season, what Mercedes hasn’t witnessed frequently are races where rivals have the opportunity or the occasion to beat them in a single Grand Prix.
Yet Sunday, as at Austria last year, Williams had that all-too-rare shot. As in Austria, Williams didn’t capitalize on it.
Massa and Bottas made the aforementioned dynamic start, before the radio calls came out over the broadcast… and the armchair quarterbacking began.
Initially, the call was for the two to hold position. Later, Bottas was told he could pass cleanly, but the Finn never got close enough to make a move, even with DRS.
We’ll never know whether Bottas could have banked enough of a gap, if Williams made the call to allow him past, in order to make his first stop and retain the lead ahead of Lewis Hamilton.
Frankly, the race was lost as much when Hamilton undercut the Williams pair in front of him.
The Englishman stopped first, before either Williams driver or Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg; the team made an excellent 2.4-second stop, and by Lap 22 Hamilton had the lead he would not relinquish the rest of the race.
From a purely personal perspective, it felt as though Williams lost the race by virtue of not allowing Bottas past early… but this is Williams we’re talking about, so it didn’t surprise me too much.
Team orders and Williams have not been inextricably linked as say, team orders and Ferrari.
Still, twice there have been drivers ignore team orders to move aside for teammates. The 1981 Brazilian Grand Prix was arguably the most famous in the team’s history; Carlos Reutemann refused to let that year’s defending World Champion Alan Jones through in Rio.
On a much smaller scale, this wasn’t the first time Bottas and Massa have been involved in potential team orders situation. At Malaysia last year, Massa ignored a call to let Bottas past for seventh. The two were back to racing each other for position the next race at Bahrain.
This wasn’t a case where anyone ignored orders; it was just that no call was made from the pit wall to say Massa needed to move over.
Psychologically speaking, I’m not sure it would have done Massa any good to hear “Felipe, Valtteri is faster than you,” as my MotorSportsTalk colleague Luke Smith noted was a possibility during the race.
If you’re a fan of fair play and letting teammates race each other without team intervention, then chances are you will have liked Williams’ call to let it play out as it did, even though it may have been the call – or non-call – that lost them the race.
If you’re a fan of team orders, ruthlessness and “win-at-all-costs” mentality, then I can see where you take issue with Williams’ strategic decisions and letting the race play out as it did.
As Williams notes though, they’d get negative feedback either way:
The thing this proves unequivocally is how difficult it is to beat Mercedes, now, in 2015.
This was the first time Williams has led all season and as the race built up I never had a sense of “well, Williams could actually win this thing;” it was more a sense of “when does Mercedes get ahead?”
The way Williams allowed the race to play out, from a sporting perspective, was grand. There was tension throughout as to whether they would make a call, and that, coupled with the late rain made for a highly entertaining Grand Prix from start-to-finish, as Luke notes here.
But Williams was damned if they did, and damned if they didn’t on Sunday.