Flashback: Civil War gets ugly at Mercedes

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Hamilton Rosberg crash

The 2016 Spanish Grand Prix will always be remembered for Max Verstappen’s sensational win, but that might not have been had Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg not crashed on the opening lap of the race in Barcelona which was theirs to win.

Tensions were already high within the Mercedes team, fueled by the second lap collision between the two drivers during the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix which led to a further cooling in relations.

After the incident at Spa where they made contact while going wheel-to-wheel through Les Combes, Rosberg went on to finish second behind Red Bull’s race winner Daniel Ricciardo while Hamilton retired with damage sustained in the collision. Rosberg won the title that year then retired

Fast forward a couple of years the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix which finally ignited the civil war that eventually Rosberg won, but the bitterness of that battle appears to still linger on Hamilton’s side. Clearly, he has not forgotten or forgiven.

Recalling this incident is pertinent as Mercedes again find themselves with a massively superior car and two drivers, in Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, at the top of their respective game. One seeking his sixth title and the other targeting his first.

While currently, harmony prevails there must come a time when the pair have to slug it out, perhaps even scrape paint or bend metal because at the end of the season there is only place for one champion.

That crash in Barcelona ended Rosberg’s winning streak of seven races (he had won the first four of 2016 coupled to the last three of 2015) and also led to Mercedes’ first double DNF since the 2011 Australian Grand Prix, but, worse than that, it further widened the divide between their drivers.

That day in Spain, Hamilton started on pole position, with Rosberg alongside on the front row at the Circuit de Catalunya. The German passed Hamilton around the outside of Turn 1 and the Briton was then squeezed on to the grass as he tried to regain the lead through Turn 3.

His car skewed sideways and smashed into Rosberg’s, with both drivers ending up in the gravel, their cars beached, their afternoon over. Watching Daimler chief executive Dieter Zetsche shook his head in dismay, while Hamilton threw his steering wheel out of the car.

The pair returned to the paddock on scooters and trudged up the stairs for a debrief with Mercedes team bosses, motorsport head Toto Wolff hot on their heels. The drivers were also summoned to see the FIA stewards after the race.

This is what they reported with regards to the incident:

  • The incident concerned started when Car 6 dropped into an incorrect power mode, as set by the driver prior to the start. This created a significant power differential between Car 6 and Car 44 at the exit of Turn 3 coming onto the straight, resulting in as much as a 17kph speed difference between the two cars on the straight. Car 6 moved to the right to defend his position, as is his right under Art 27.7 of the Sporting regulations.
  • Simultaneously Car 44 as the significantly faster car with, at that time, apparent space on the inside, moved to make the pass. Art 27.7 requires the leading driver to leave room, if there is a “significant portion” of the car attempting to pass alongside. Car 44 had a portion of his front wing inside Car 6 small fractions of a second prior to Car 44 having to leave the right side of the track to avoid an initial collision, which may have led him to believe he had the right to space on the right. Once on the grass on the side of the track Car 44 was no longer in control of the situation.
  • Having heard extensively from both drivers and from the team, the Stewards determined that Car 6 had the right to make the manoeuvre that he did and that Car 44’s attempt to overtake was reasonable and that the convergence of events led neither driver to be wholly or predominantly at fault, and therefore take no further action.

In the immediate aftermath, the team’s non-executive chairman Niki Lauda blamed Hamilton, “It is stupid, we could’ve won this race. Lewis is too aggressive. I need to talk to them and hear their explanation and then we will see what happens.”

Team boss Toto Wolff took a more cautious approach, “Niki has a driver’s opinion and it’s fair enough. As a driver, you see it in black and white. From a team’s perspective, we’ve looked at the pictures and the data and it’s not clear cut.”

“Nico had a really good Turn 1 and Turn 2, Lewis tried to dive in, Nico closed the door. It’s not a situation where you can attribute 100 percent of the blame.”

Rosberg’s version: “I was sure that it was my race to win. I saw Lewis closing in and as soon as I could I closed the door with a clear strong move to make sure he understands that there’s not going to be space there. I was very surprised that he went for it anyway.”

“I’m not just gutted for myself but for everybody because we are one team and all together in this. I was about to win that race. What solace can I take? I’m standing here now with zero points and I was in the gravel trap,” he added.

Hamilton’s version: “First of all, a huge apology to all of our team – when I stopped my heart just sank. To not deliver for them, it’s honestly… indescribable how gutted I was. I got a good start but he slipstreamed me into Turn 1. Then through Turn 3 he had a D-rate – basically he made a mistake and started in the wrong engine setting. We only have one setting for maximum power and he wasn’t in it, which meant he was like 180bhp down.”

“I’m not getting into blame, just a huge apology to the team. I’ll do everything I can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Don’t have a good feeling this second, but we will recover,” added Hamilton.

The final word on the matter to Lauda, who said after the team’s post-race debrief, “Lewis looked us in the eye and took the blame. He apologised. He took everything on himself. That’s fine with me. Toto sees it differently, but I’m a black and white thinker.”

“If someone says: Guys, I’m really sorry – if someone makes a mistake and realises it – then that for me is the end of story,” added the F1 legend.

Today Mercedes are in a similar dominant mode as they were at that time in 2016, perhaps even more so at this point. They have won the first four races on the trot as they did then, although, at the time Rosberg had won all four, this time Bottas and Hamilton have two wins each, with only one point separating them at the top of the drivers’ standings.

Inevitably two into one does not go in terms of the championship, and while at this stage Mercedes stick to the their “let them race” policy the potential for internal fireworks grows with every race.

Hamilton versus Rosberg got ugly, Bottas versus Hamilton should get ugly too, it just depends when, where and, of course, if Mercedes continue to allow their drivers to slug it out – and do not tinker with the destiny of the duel.

Another Mercedes ‘civil war’ could well be the contest that saves this championship from being a snooze-fest, as their rivals’ trip and fumble about in the silver dust.

Big Question: What chance of another Merc civil war, this time between Lewis and Valtteri?

Mercedes in turmoil after meltdown in Spain

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