Will Mercedes make Lewis Hamilton their number one driver in 2017?
Wolff says Mercedes don't like favouring one driver over another but "the situation is different now" as Ferrari and Vettel win again
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 18/04/17 4:59pm
Toto Wolff claims it would be unfair to install Lewis Hamilton as a 'number one' driver so early in Valtteri Bottas' Mercedes career, but admits the situation needs "proper analysis" as the season unfolds.
A competitive start to the 2017 campaign has seen Sebastian Vettel win two of the first three races, the latest of which in Bahrain coming in spite of Mercedes swapping Bottas and Hamilton's positions in a bid to hunt down the Ferrari.
Vettel's victory and Hamilton's second place means the multi-time world champions have already built up a 23-point gap to closest challenger Bottas and, even at such an early stage, the pair look set for a two-way title battle.
So would Mercedes abandon a 'racing philosophy' by just backing one driver for glory?
"We don't like that. At all. It's not what we have done in the last couple of years," said team principal Toto Wolff, who has always been clear that the team's preference is to have two number-one drivers.
"But the situation is different now, so it needs a proper analysis what it means and where we are. It's a very tough call and I don't want to discuss it yet because it's not fair to Valtteri."
Why is it different now?
For the first time in four years, Mercedes appear to have a consistently quick external force to worry about. Ferrari and Red Bull have rarely troubled the Silver Arrows since 2014, and never has either started a season so strongly.
There were indications that this added pressure was starting to affect Mercedes when they were outsmarted by Ferrari at the first pit-stop in Bahrain, and even more so when enforcing team orders to try and catch Vettel.
Indeed, Bottas' slow race pace after an impressive pole backed Mercedes into a corner they never wanted to be in.
"We tried to maintain the order and not interfere because it's an awful call you have to make," Wolff told Sky F1. "But at a certain stage you have to decide whether you losing the race or are you making a call that's not a nice one.
"We'd like to give each of them equal opportunity at the start of the race and we owe it to them. We made the call twice in the race because we felt it was what it was needed to win."
Of course, to even think about favouring one driver over another, Ferrari and Mercedes would need an obliging number two.
Both Kimi Raikkonen and Bottas seem to be off the pace compared to their team-mates, in the race at least, but backing up a title-chasing partner is a situation no driver wants to find himself in. Bottas even described hearing Mercedes asking him to move aside on Sunday as "one of the toughest things you can hear as a racing driver".
"I understand," he added. "But it's tough when you're trying to focus on your personal race. I'm definitely a team player and wouldn't say no."
What will Mercedes do?
It's clear that Mercedes would prefer this situation to be a one-off, rather than a tactic they have to revert to for the rest of the season. In an ideal world, Bottas and Hamilton would fight it out as equals while still holding off Ferrari.
But the Scuderia's early-season resurgence is far from ideal for Mercedes, and it may mean they have to give preference to Hamilton if they are to secure a fourth successive drivers' title.
"It's going to be so close," said Sky F1's Martin Brundle. "For me, it's Hamilton v Vettel for the championship and the teams are going to have to address that. They need the other guys there, you want to make sure if Vettel can't win that day, Raikkonen picks the victory up, for example.
"Toto will say it's way too early in the season for that and they might be right but I think the picture is already formed."
Don't miss the F1 Report: Bahrain GP Review on Sky Sports F1 at 8.30pm on Wednesday for the final word on the weekend's action.