By Alan Baldwin
SPIELBERG, Austria (Reuters) – Mercedes have a difficult decision to make after colliding team mates Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg gave Formula One fans a day of drama in Austria on Sunday.
From an entertainment perspective, the response should be simple — continue to allow the two to race unfettered from start to finish and bask in the gratitude of a global audience.
Their last lap coming together at the Red Bull Ring put the sport on front and back pages, reviving a narrative of battling team mates going back to the days of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But Mercedes have sponsors to satisfy and corporate objectives. Collisions between drivers that deny the team a one-two finish are not allowed.
Team boss Toto Wolff’s response to what he called a “brainless” accident was to threaten the imposition of team orders — a practice that was banned for some years and is now legal again.
“We need to discuss internally how we want to manage situations going forward when the two are close to each other. The core race team will sit at a table and discuss,” he told reporters.
“We will make decision irrespective of what they say, it could go in either direction. We need to avoid contact between the two cars whatever the decision is. Everything’s on the table.”
Wolff said one option would be to freeze the order at a certain stage, telling drivers not to try and overtake each other and just bring the car home, even if Mercedes’s instincts were to let them race.
Such orders have happened often enough in the past, particularly when teams are in a close title battle and desperate for every point they can get.
At its most extreme, as was the case at Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, one driver is given priority.
But Mercedes are in a different position. They have no number one, Rosberg and Hamilton fighting equally for the title, and the team are dominant despite Ferrari and Red Bull raising their games.
Mercedes have won eight of nine races this season, and started all but one on pole position but so long as Hamilton and Rosberg can battle wheel to wheel there are still thrills to be had.
Hamilton has a contract to 2018, while Rosberg is currently negotiating a new deal which may put him in a more vulnerable position.
But Rosberg is leading the championship and Mercedes would love to have champions in both cars.
Retired world champion Jacques Villeneuve said team orders would rob the fans of excitement.
“It would be terrible,” he told Reuters.
“But it’s understandable because both drivers go above what is permissible inside a team. They would rather both crash than have the other one finish ahead of them.”
That said, Villeneuve doubted Mercedes would follow through with anything more than dire threats and words of warning.
“They both have contracts where they are allowed to fight for the championship so how do you impose team orders?,” he asked. “It’s not Ferrari where you have a clear number one.”
Either way, Formula One’s commercial supremo Bernie Ecclestone and Silverstone promoters will be loving the controversy ahead of Hamilton’s home British Grand Prix this weekend.
“This is great for racing, Bernie is super-happy,” declared Villeneuve. “You have a week of discussion on who was wrong. You have a week of media, which you would normally not get. So it’s great.
“And at the same time it will be a week of talking about Mercedes. So it’s not even bad publicity.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)