SAKHIR, Bahrain — During three years of sometimes hostile racing between teammates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, their Mercedes team avoided imposing team orders even when the tension was reaching break point and the two rivals were crashing into each other.
The idea was to let them race, and let natural justice be decided on the track at the expense of harmony away from it. The only exception was at last year’s rain-soaked Monaco GP, where Rosberg accepted team orders to let Hamilton through on his way to victory.
Yet just three races into the new season, Mercedes has already imposed orders on Valtteri Bottas by telling him to make way for Hamilton twice in one race – Sunday’s Bahrain Grand Prix.
One of the instructions came in the closing stages, when Bottas was ordered to let Hamilton pass so he could chase down Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel — who held on to win and take the championship lead ahead of Hamilton.
Only in extreme circumstances, such as Monaco, did either Rosberg or Hamilton give ground during a brittle partnership between the teenage go-karting friends who became the fiercest of rivals.
On the final day of the 2016 title race in Abu Dhabi, with both Mercedes drivers in contention, race leader Hamilton refused a direct team order from two team officials to speed up toward the end. He was deliberately slowing down in order to delay Rosberg behind him, in the hope he would drop down the leaderboard and not secure the required points he needed for the title.
Bottas replaced Rosberg at Mercedes after the German driver stunned F1 by announcing he was retiring just days after snatching the world title away from Hamilton. It brought an end to their fragile and acrimonious relationship, thus denying Hamilton a chance for revenge this year.
Drafted in from Williams as an emergency replacement, the arrival of Bottas quashed rumours that a more successful driver would be hired.
Bottas has never won a race and, before this weekend, had never even secured a pole position with the Williams team. His tally of 11 podiums is minor compared to Hamilton’s 107 — which is the second highest of all time behind seven-time F1 champion Michael Schumacher.
Hamilton has praised Bottas constantly since he arrived, even calling him a "gentleman" for agreeing to let him past in Bahrain.
For Bottas, though, the team orders were far from welcome.
"I think honestly as a racing driver it’s maybe the worst thing you want to hear. For sure I did it because there was potential (that) Lewis could challenge Sebastian," Bottas said. "In the end it didn’t happen but the team tried which I completely understand, but personally it is tough. I didn’t have enough pace today and we need to find the reasons why that was."
The explanation was that Bottas had too much tire pressure at the start and could not pull away from Vettel, and that he also lacked speed later in the race.
But in terms of pure racing, he was denied the chance to try and fend off Hamilton and keep second place for himself.
"I think there would have been a possibility. I would have had to defend hard and that could have meant some risky situations, but the team thought (Hamilton) had the chance to catch Sebastian, and we tried it," Bottas said. "I see the point, but still it’s tough when you’re on pole and trying to win a race. But I’m definitely a team player so I wouldn’t say no to that (team order)."
It remains to be seen whether Hamilton, given how determined he is as a competitor, would have made way for Bottas if he had been asked, particularly given what happened in Abu Dhabi.
Mercedes never publicly declared either Hamilton or Rosberg as their No. 1 driver.
But it already seems to be the case that Mercedes may have to declare Hamilton as its No. 1, something which head of motorsport Toto Wolff is not relishing.
"It is not what we have done the last couple of years, but the situation is different now. So it needs a proper analysis, what it means and where we are," he said after Sunday’s race. "We’d like to give each of them equal opportunity at the start of the race. We owe it to them. Then you see what we did in the race. We made the call. We made the call twice."