SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) - Mercedes F1 boss Toto Wolff defended his use of team orders to help Lewis Hamilton win the Russian Grand Prix on Sunday and said he would rather people thought he was unsporting than stupid.
The victory, with Finland’s Valtteri Bottas told to move aside for his British team mate at the halfway point, allowed Hamilton to stretch his championship lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to 50 points with five races left.
There is now every chance of Hamilton wrapping up his fifth title with a race or two to spare.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie some times and it’s me today,” Wolff told reporters.
“You need to weigh it up; To be the baddie on Sunday evening, for many right reasons, or be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season.
“I’d rather be the baddie today and not the idiot at the end of the year.”
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen was leading, but had yet to pit, with Bottas second and Hamilton third with a blistered rear tyre after overtaking Vettel.
Mercedes were concerned that Hamilton could be vulnerable to the Ferrari, and might even have to pit again if the tyre got any worse — as had been the case in Belgium.
Wolff said that was the rationale behind the order, with Bottas not a title contender, to defend the champion from the risk of being caught and losing points.
The Austrian recognised, however, that some might consider it an unsporting gesture to have deprived Bottas of his first win of the season after he had secured pole position.
“Rationally, it was the right call to do,” he said. “(But) Our sporting heart says no.
“At the end, if five points or three points are missing, then you are the biggest idiot on the planet by prioritising Valtteri’s single race result over the championship,” added Wolff.
The question of ‘team orders’, once banned in Formula One but now legal, was discussed before the race with multiple possible scenarios.
Wolff said he had also spent a sleepless night, mindful of the global controversy triggered when Ferrari ordered Brazilian Rubens Barrichello to cede the lead to team mate Michael Schumacher in Austria in 2002.
Barrichello did so at the final corner, with the crowd in uproar.
“I spent half the night yesterday thinking about the situation and thinking about Austria in 2002 and the implication for the brand. It’s a super-tough call to make,” said Wolff.
Sunday’s race ultimately drew significantly less ire, with Hamilton inviting Bottas to join him on the top step of the podium while recognising the victory felt somewhat hollow.
Wolff said Bottas understood the situation, even if he did not like it.
“What we discussed this morning was if he were in Lewis’s situation, would he expect the team to work for him? And the answer is clearly yes,” he said.
“So he understands that. But in his heart, and in the same way my heart and Lewis’s heart and all of our hearts, it just doesn’t feel right that he didn’t win the race because he was the guy on track and in the lead.”
Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Christian Radnedge