By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Formula One champions Mercedes rallied around chief strategist James Vowles on Tuesday and dismissed reports he had been forced to apologise publicly for a mistake in last Sunday's Austrian Grand Prix.
Vowles spoke to Lewis Hamilton, his words heard by millions of television viewers worldwide, after a tactical error dropped the Briton from first to fourth when a virtual safety car was deployed.
"That's my mistake, Lewis, and I'm very sorry for it," Vowles told the four-times world champion, who later retired from the race, in a rare radio intervention. "I have thrown away the win," he added.
Mercedes on Tuesday described as baseless any suggestion that Vowles had been "thrown under the bus" by the team.
Speaking in a debrief on the Mercedes YouTube channel, technical director James Allison said Vowles had "an extremely broad pair of shoulders" and his actions reflected the culture within the team.
"People will hold up a hand when they have made a mistake knowing that the team's attitude to mistakes is that they are things that we learn from rather than throw blame around for," he added.
"So it was a very good example of strong leadership by James, trying to explain to Lewis what had happened."
Radio messages to drivers are usually relayed via race engineers but Allison said Vowles sometimes intervened directly in unusual circumstances if the message was particularly important.
Hamilton had led until team mate Valtteri Bottas suffered an hydraulics failure and pulled over, bringing out the virtual safety car for one lap. He did not pit while those immediately behind him did.
"You don't want to be the only one stopping and then find that all the other guys behind you don't stop and you get tangled up in them in a way you hope not to be," explained Allison.
"We thought the Virtual Safety Car would last for more than one lap, so we thought we would see what happened to the guys behind us."
Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told reporters he would have dealt with the matter differently.
"My view on my role as team principal is that you are here to protect your workforce to make sure they are represented in the best possible way, on the good days and the bad days," he said.
"There has to be accountability, but that is dealt with in the right environment behind closed doors.
"I don’t know what makes him (Hamilton) tick...but it seems a fairly bizarre thing for somebody to feel they need to throw themselves under the bus to motivate a driver to go from fourth back into the lead."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Mark Heinrich and Ed Osmond)