Mercedes insists that its team orders in Formula 1’s Japanese Grand Prix were only about helping Lewis Hamilton, despite him questioning some of its ideas as making “no sense”.
While Hamilton was on fresher tyres, there was no immediate call for Russell to move aside for his team-mate – which prompted some frustrations from the seven-time world champion over the radio.
Finally Mercedes relented and asked Russell to move over. But as Hamilton then tried to pull clear, he was asked to back off and keep Russell in DRS range – with the hope being that that could help him defend better against Sainz.
Hamilton felt that DRS idea was wrong, as he told the team over the radio – and repeated after the race – that it would have been much better for him to get on and build up as big a margin as possible in clear air.
"I don't think that was a good idea at all," explained Hamilton. "When they suggested it to me, I knew that they had obviously thought of it from the last race, and it made no sense.”
Speaking about the decision-making process in dealing with the two drivers at that stage of the grand prix, Mercedes’ trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin is clear that the focus was entirely on ensuring Hamilton was not passed by Sainz.
“It is quite difficult to organise the cars live,” he said. "When we decided to switch them, it was more when we saw how quick Carlos was coming in behind them, and that Lewis in the middle could have been at risk who was old tyres as well.
“Maybe it could have worked out better, but the thing is we were trying to protect against Lewis losing that position as well, as he was the one most likely to finish ahead of Carlos.”
With Hamilton and Russell having battled hard in the initial stages of the race, Mercedes had minimised the risk of further wheel-to-wheel contests when it split strategies.
While Hamilton went with the most popular two-stop, Russell tried to make a one-stop work as his tyre degradation was not disastrous.
Asked if that early fight with Hamilton had any bearing on that strategy call, Shovlin said: “No, not really. Because in terms of what the team's doing, we're trying to score points against Ferrari, certainly in a race like this.
“Once we realised that we're not challenging McLaren for a podium, we're looking at what's going on with Ferrari.
“We were 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.”
While the aggressive approach that its drivers took to battling each other raised some eyebrows, and there were some hard words uttered over team radio, Mercedes has played down any talk of extra friction between Hamilton and Russell.
Chief communications officer Bradley Lord said: “They are obviously both racing hard in a car that was tricky, pushing to the limit. And obviously there was some radio traffic as well, that reflected that.
“I think we have got into the habit over the years of not reading too much into what is said in the heat of the moment amid the pressure in the cockpit, particularly at a hot and demanding race like this one.
“Anything that needs tidying up or discussing afterwards, we'll be able to take away from that pressure cooker and deal with it nice and calmly in the debrief.”