Revealed: The hidden influence behind Lewis Hamilton and George Russell’s Suzuka swap

Thomas Maher
Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and George Russell battle during the Japanese Grand Prix.

Mercedes faced a headache over how to handle George Russell and Lewis Hamilton’s battle at Suzuka, particularly with Carlos Sainz closing in.

Hamilton and Russell had encountered each other on track early in the Japanese Grand Prix, with Russell managing to overtake his illustrious teammate through the chicane – only for Hamilton to steal the position back going down the pit straight moments later.

A side-by-side moment into Spoon resulted in Hamilton pushing Russell wide onto the escape area, with both drivers losing time and prompting Russell to get on the radio to question whether they were battling each other or their rivals.

Mercedes split the strategies for Lewis Hamilton and George Russell

On Lap 16, Mercedes called Hamilton into the pits to take on the hard tyre, but kept Russell out on track for a further eight laps as they committed to a one-stop strategy. Conveniently, this had the effect of separating the drivers on track for the majority of the race.

However, in the closing stages, with Hamilton on fresh hards after pitting again on Lap 34, he and the pursuing Carlos Sainz rapidly caught up on Russell. But would Russell be eager to help out Hamilton after their escapades earlier?

It didn’t appear so, as Russell initially resisted a call to let Hamilton through – he requested that he maintain position and try to stay in front and give Hamilton the DRS in a bid for both cars to stay in front of Sainz: “Why don’t we swap on the last lap, and he stays in DRS like last week [in Singapore], unless he’s fighting for a bigger result?’

But the message back to Russell was clear. A firm instruction was made: let Hamilton through, and then defend against Sainz. Russell acquiesced to Hamilton into Turn 1, but showed how annoyed he was by requesting that Hamilton slowed up to give him DRS in an attempt to defend against the Ferrari. “He pushed me off the track earlier,” Russell said, “it’s the least he can do.”

But, even with DRS, Russell was eaten up by Sainz down the pit straight, while Hamilton hung on up ahead to stay clear of the Spaniard.

Having let their drivers race for the win in Singapore, a race that ended in disaster for Russell as he made a critical error on the final lap, why were Mercedes so much more firm about releasing Hamilton?

The reason is Toto Wolff. While absent from the track as the Austrian recuperated at home following knee surgery, his role as CEO and team boss meant that Wolff still played a vital role in the decision-making during the Japanese Grand Prix.

During those tense moments with Russell pleading his case, PlanetF1.com understands it was Wolff who made the final call to get Hamilton in front of Russell and try to stay clear of Sainz – clearly fearing the Ferrari managing to get past both cars.

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Why did Mercedes split the strategies?

Of course, with the one-stop strategy having not worked out for Russell, why was the decision made to split the strategy? With the two-stop clearly the better option as borne out by the top six all employing it, was there a desire to separate their drivers on track for as long as possible given what had unfolded in the opening laps?

“No, not really,” was Andrew Shovlin’s response to that.

“Because, in terms of what the team’s doing, we’re trying to score points against Ferrari. Certainly in a race like today, once we realised that we were not challenging McLaren for a podium, we’re looking at what’s going on with Ferrari.

“We’re trying to use the two cars effectively to give us those opportunities and being able to get one of them was useful damage limitation given that they both started ahead of us in the race.”

Shovlin, who is Mercedes’ head of trackside engineering, explained that there simply was “nothing to lose” by trying to split the strategies, given they had no real fear of Fernando Alonso behind. One of the drivers was going to draw the short straw and, with Russell having shown an interest in ‘Plan B’ early on, the #63 was left out on track as Hamilton pitted.

“When we were looking at it earlier in the race, we were projecting some better upside that we could maybe do quite well, if the others weren’t able to overtake later on,” Shovlin explained.

“At the point we were deciding to do it, it was actually looking like, ‘Do we try and get to the end where we have a chance of being ahead of Sainz?’

“Or do we stop, we’d drop behind Alonso, gotten through with new tyres, and you’re behind Sainz anyway.

“So whilst the odds of of holding back Sainz on the one-stop were relatively low, the reason that we committed to it was by virtue of the fact that there was nothing to lose.

“There was no risk to George on a one-stop from Alonso behind. So we stayed with it. But it was a difficult strategy to pull off and he did well to manage it.

“But the deg[radation] was just a bit too high to make it competitive.”

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