Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg are involved in perhaps the most intense Formula One championship battle since 1989.
The two Mercedes drivers have a car which is the class of the field. Under normal circumstances and putting reliability aside, they would finish first and second in every single race.
But the 2014 Hungarian Grand Prix was anything but "normal circumstances."
Rosberg had started from pole and led comfortably, but he lost out when the safety car was deployed to deal with Marcus Ericsson's accident. Hamilton had started from the pits after a mechanical failure in qualifying, and though he was making some progress, it wasn't enough.
The safety car brought them closer together.
When it came in at the start of the 13th lap, Rosberg was fourth with Hamilton 13th. But while Nico made a hash of the first few racing laps, Lewis drove like a man possessed.
By Lap 15, Rosberg was sixth, Hamilton eighth. Sebastian Vettel was the meat in the Mercedes sandwich, and ahead of Rosberg was the man who probably cost him the win—Jean-Eric Vergne.
Rosberg ended up stuck behind the Toro Rosso for 16 laps. Despite having the quicker car, he could not get by, and Mercedes made the decision to call him in quite early for his second stop.
The plan was that he would run two quick, short stints on the soft compound tyres to the end of the race.
Hamilton, meanwhile, found himself inheriting Rosberg's spot on Vergne's gearbox. Maybe he had more pace, or maybe he just felt he had less to lose—whatever the reason, he blasted by the Frenchman within two laps of Rosberg's stop.
Having earned some clear air, he began lapping over a second a lap faster.
At the same time, Rosberg was struggling through traffic—Pastor Maldonado, then Valtteri Bottas and finally Kevin Magnussen. He had fresh rubber but couldn't use it, and he was in danger of being "overcut" by Hamilton.
The relevant lap data from the FIA tells the story:
When Hamilton pitted, Rosberg's fears were confirmed. He was three seconds behind, but on the quicker soft compounds. Hamilton was going to the end on mediums; Rosberg had to stop again for more softs.
The German quickly closed up on the Brit, and by Lap 45 the gap was a little over a second. Two laps later, viewers around the world—or at least, those with the same feed Sky Sports F1 uses in the UK—heard a message from Hamilton's pit radio:
OK Lewis, gap to Nico one second. He's on the option tyre. He has one more stop so don't hold him up.
We didn't hear Hamilton's response, but his actions on the track spoke volumes: He didn't slow at all, and Rosberg remained behind.
As the two Mercedes' entered their 51st lap, the gap was still around one second. Viewers heard a transmission from Rosberg—he asked the team why Hamilton wasn't letting him through. Immediately afterwards came another message from the pit wall to Hamilton, this one more specific:
OK Lewis, if you let Nico past at this lap please, let Nico past on the main start-finish straight.
He didn't. One lap later, Rosberg asked again why he wasn't being allowed past. BBC Sport quoted Hamilton's response to the team: "I'm not slowing down for Nico—if he gets closer he can overtake."
But Rosberg could not. The closest he could get over the start-finish line was 0.81 seconds, and Hamilton refused to slow down by that much to let him through.
By the 55th lap, the team gave up asking Hamilton to move aside. Rosberg pitted two laps later, Hamilton stayed out and they ended up fighting for third place on the final lap.
Hamilton prevailed. Had he let Rosberg through earlier in the race, he would almost certainly have lost out—and Rosberg may well have won.
Team orders are always a slightly contentious subject. The race engineer always sounds slightly embarrassed when conveying the message, and many fans feel they're being robbed of what might have been a great battle for position.
Contentious or not, some team orders are perfectly reasonable. F1 is, after all, a team sport. If one driver has the opportunity to score some serious points while the other is struggling, it makes all the sense in the world for the quicker man to be given a free pass.
But when both drivers are quick enough to challenge for the race win, it becomes a different matter entirely.
In Hungary, Hamilton and Rosberg were racing for victory against Fernando Alonso and Daniel Ricciardo. Despite being on different strategies, they were always going to end up close together at the end of the race—Rosberg on the "hare" strategy, Hamilton on the "tortoise."
In a situation like that, neither driver should be expected to give a single tenth of second's advantage to the other guy.
And they weren't just fighting for the win. They were fighting for the world championship.
Allowing Rosberg through would have cost Hamilton at least two, possibly three seconds. At the chequered flag, that could have become two, three, five, seven, even 10 points.
That Mercedes even considered asking him to do that is bordering on the absurd.
It's easy to see the team's point of view. Mercedes wanted to score as many points as possible for the team—in making the strategy call, the drivers were secondary. That's the Mercedes way.
More than any other team in recent years, Mercedes want the constructors' championship and aren't afraid to say so. It shows in every interview and statement—the word "team" is used so often it's in danger of losing its meaning.
And Hamilton letting Rosberg through would have meant more points for the team.
But the constructors championship race is over. Mercedes have 393 points; Red Bull, in second and with a car that isn't always the second-fastest, have 219. They're not going to catch up.
The drivers' title race, on the other hand, is still very much alive. Trying to employ team orders and expecting one driver to gift an advantage to the other in order to enhance the team's already unassailable position is ludicrous.
Hamilton's response appears to have had the desired effect—Mercedes are going to reconsider their priorities. Team boss Toto Wolff was quoted by BBC Sport as saying:
We will not have that situation again because we will try to learn. We cannot expect the drivers in the second half of the season to move over for their main competitor.
Maybe it is a moment of loosening it a bit in agreement with both of them. We are all grown up and it is about developing from here and making it better the next time.
But there are plenty of brilliant minds within that Mercedes team. They didn't need Hamilton ignoring them to realise these sort of orders are wrong.
It should have occurred to them a long, long time ago.
Their actions in Hungary have shown them up as a team with mixed-up priorities which panics under pressure and struggles to make strategy calls on the fly.
Wonder what Ross Brawn is up to these days...
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