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MAY 17, 2016

Damned if you do...


Nico Rosberg, Spanish GP 2016
© The Cahier Archive


Car manufacturers spend millions of dollars in motor sport because they see it as a great marketing tool. Win a Formula One Grand Prix, the Le Mans 24 Hours, a round of the World Rally Championship or some other major event and you can use that result as part of your marketing campaigns. Selling more cars and developing technology are the two main goals of companies like Mercedes, Renault and Honda, so with 36 Grand Prix victories in the last 43 races, the German car manufacturer's marketing department should be very pleased with the investment made since the end of 2009.

But that's not what's happening and there was concern in Stuttgart even before last Sunday's unfortunate on-track clash between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton. Winning too much has a serious down side, as Toto Wolff found out after Nico Rosberg completely dominated the Chinese Grand Prix but had less TV time than any of his rivals. After all, he was running away with the race while some interesting battles were taking place behind him, so those in charge of the broadcast of the race did the right thing: they showed those battles.

What happened in Shanghai was not new and Wolff had been aware in the previous two years that dominating races, especially if his two cars were not running close together, could seriously hurt the TV exposure of the Silver Arrows and even went as far as going up to Bernie Ecclestone to discuss the situation. Soon though, he had a much bigger issue to deal with, as 30 seconds into the Spanish Grand Prix both his cars were in the gravel and his drivers out of the race.

Rather that arguing about the rights and wrong of that shocking moment - the paddock is rather split but most current drivers are happy the Stewards considered it a racing incident - what I'd like to consider here is how the situation between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg has become unwinnable for Mercedes.

This is the second time in three years the Brackley-based team has paid a heavy price for its policy of allowing the drivers to battle it out, but while in Spa, two years ago, Nico Rosberg salvaged a second place, bringing home precious points, last Sunday Mercedes scored zero points, losing 37 points to Red Bull and, more importantly, 33 points to Ferrari. Coming into Barcelona with a comfortable margin of 81 points over the Scuderia - after only four races! - Mercedes returned home with its advantage cut down to 48 points and a divided garage.

Still, at least for now, Toto Wolff seems reluctant to impose team orders and forbid its drivers to race freely, something other teams did very often in the past. It was a rule at Ferrari, during Michael Schumacher's dominant days, to have a clear second driver - first it was Eddie Irvine, then Rubens Barrichello and, for just one year, Felipe Massa - that was not allowed to challenge the German. But several times, during the 1998-2000 period the same happened at McLaren, although with a nuance: in this case, things were not decided at the signing of a contract, they were decided after Turn One, for whichever driver was in front - Mika Hakkinen or David Coulthard - knew his team mate wouldn't challenge him for the rest of the race.

Wolff knows that by continuing to allow Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to fight it out on the track, Mercedes incurs in the risk of losing more races this season, especially now the relationship between his two drivers has hit an all-time low. For how long the Mercedes board will allow the situation to remain as it is, that's the question, but for now the Austrian has made it clear he has no plans to change the team's policy and also has good reason to do it.

Imposing team orders would just contribute to deteriorate the ambiance inside the team and it's not even certain Hamilton or Rosberg would accept to lose a race they felt they could win. The one who would feel more aggrieved might even consider moving elsewhere at the end of the season and even if Red Bull has no seats available for 2017 and Ferrari seems unwilling to have two bulls in the same ring, when top drivers become suddenly available the market tends to go into a frenzy of unpredictable consequences.

On top of that, the German and the British media would go ballistic against Mercedes, taking away all the normal marketing benefits from Grand Prix victories with a campaign denigrating the team's policy. Damned if you do, damned if you don‘t. Toto Wolff has a difficult situation to solve in his hands. But I'm sure the pain is massively eased by the knowledge a third consecutive title is on the way for it would require a complete meltdown from Mercedes to lose any of the titles this year.