By Alan Baldwin
SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Mercedes have a tough call to make on Sunday after Valtteri Bottas took pole position at the Russian Grand Prix with championship-leading team mate Lewis Hamilton starting alongside.
Hamilton is 40 points ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel, lurking just behind in third place on the grid, but 110 clear of Bottas whose Formula One title hopes are almost non-existent with six races remaining.
Mercedes cannot afford to gift Ferrari anything, and nor do they want the risk of their drivers colliding and throwing hard-won gains up in the air.
In championship terms it would clearly be better for Hamilton to finish ahead of the Finn but the outcome of qualifying, at a track where overtaking has proved tricky, means a helping hand may be needed.
Team boss Toto Wolff made clear he would have to manage the situation.
“We are not in a part of the season where I would particularly enjoy two Mercedes cars racing each other at the front,” he told reporters.
“As much as I hate to say that as a race fan, but you need to calculate a little bit more at that stage,” added the Austrian.
The problem is that Hamilton has said he does not want to be gifted anything while the Finn needs to feel that he is more than just a ‘wingman’ at the service of his four-times champion team mate.
Hamilton has won seven races already this year and Bottas, last year’s winner in Russia, none.
“Lewis wouldn’t want it (team orders in his favour) because he wants to give it a go on his own and Valtteri wouldn’t want it because he needs that win that he didn’t have this year,” said Wolff.
“So it’s a very tricky decision to make and we will be discussing that tomorrow morning with both of them and as always come to a solution with the buy-in of everybody.”
The Sochi circuit has a long run-in to the first corner and Hamilton, who had been fastest in practice and the first two parts of qualifying, said there was all to play for.
However both will need no reminding of the fact that Bottas seized last year’s victory after a lightning start from third place.
Vettel, in fact, reminded Bottas of that immediately after Saturday’s session finished.
Wolff suggested the Ferrari driver might even be better placed than his two.
“I am not sure P2 (second) is the best position to start,” he said. “Probably P3 or P4, if you catch the tow, is the position you need to be in, not the front row.”
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Pritha Sarkar)