F1 Mailbag: Why Mercedes lets Hamilton and Russell battle, for better or worse

Max Verstappen may have wrapped up his third Formula One drivers’ championship in Qatar on Saturday, but other topics have dominated the post-race headlines.

The extreme heat faced by the drivers in Qatar, combined with a flat-out race and a high-speed track, made for the most demanding race of their careers. Logan Sargeant felt so ill he pulled out of the race, Esteban Ocon threw up in his cockpit, and both Alex Albon and Lance Stroll had to go to the medical center after the grand prix.

The high tire deg also forced the FIA to act on some tire safety concerns and mandate stint lengths in the race. Once the lights went out, Verstappen performed his usual trick (winning without any real challenge) while McLaren starred and the two Mercedes drivers clashed at the first corner.

It meant there were plenty of talking points for our post-Qatar mailbag. Here are our answers below.

Editor’s note: Questions have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

When does driver well-being start being taken more serious? Logan clearly unwell, reports of other drivers being unwell after the race – Piastri looked absolutely done during his post-race interview. Maybe it was just me, but I felt uncomfortable knowing the limits the drivers were pushing their bodies. — Kieran S.

The overly simple answer: Now. The FIA announced earlier this week that it is analyzing the conditions from Qatar and preparing recommendations for extreme weather conditions.

“A number of measures will be discussed at the upcoming medical commission meeting in Paris,” the governing body said in a statement. “Measures may include guidance for competitors, research into modifications for more efficient airflow in the cockpit, and recommendations for changes to the calendar to align with acceptable climatic conditions, amongst others.”

And you’re right — It was uncomfortable to watch, scary even. We’ve never seen drivers look as physically spent as they did post-race, sweat dripping from their hair. Drivers said they felt faint while driving (George Russell said, “Any hotter, I think I would’ve retired because my body was gonna give up.”), Esteban Ocon vomited around lap 15, and Alfa Romeo mechanics checked on Alex Albon after the race. Formula One found its limit, and now it’s a matter of figuring out how to avoid it in the future. — Madeline Coleman


FIA analyzing conditions at Qatar GP

If we know that the Lusail curbs are what is causing the damage to the tires, to what extent should F1 leave that tire management in the hands of the drivers and teams? — Clayton K.

When it comes down to a safety issue like this, the FIA must intervene as early and as strongly as possible, as it did in Qatar.

One reason this could not simply be left to the drivers and teams to manage is that they didn’t actually have any awareness of the problem. The separation of the carcass cord and topping compound on the tire was so slight that it wasn’t visible and did not show up in the teams’ data, meaning they had no idea what was happening.

Informing the teams of the issue and the curbs being the cause would not have been enough to be sure there were no problems in the race. Simply telling the drivers, “Stay off the curbs” wouldn’t have been enough. They’re racing drivers and will push to the limit and do all they can in the name of performance and lap time.

The whole situation was not a good look for F1, no. But comparisons to Indianapolis in 2005 were way off the mark. This didn’t involve the same kind of politicking, given there’s now just a single tire supplier. It was a case of Pirelli spotting an issue and taking action to prevent any race incidents. — Luke Smith

Given he’s the last person on the grid not to be tied down to a contract, is there any indication which way Williams are leaning, and if they decide not to extend Sargeant, is there any idea who they might be looking at as an alternative? — Rollo K. 

Williams team principal James Vowles said they’ll wait to make a call until the end of the season. “I think we’ve already committed to the direction of travel we’re in, he has targets to that, and it’d be wrong to go against that decision point,” he added.

Logan Sargeant has been getting quicker and was reasonably close to teammate Alex Albon’s times in Qatar’s single practice session. But the rookie has made critical mistakes that can’t be overlooked. Vowles said in Qatar, “The pace is there. That’s the thing that we wouldn’t be able to fix or repair – but what happens is, when it comes down to the crunch time, there are elements of inconsistency that creep in, and in form of that, goes into an accident sometimes.”

As an example, the team principal pointed towards a lap Sargeant put together in Japan.

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Williams says Logan Sargeant has shown improvement despite multiple recent crashes. (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

“In Suzuka, the lap he did was line-on-line on the data with Alex, but obviously it’s marred by the fact that, the last corner, he had far too aggressive a throttle application, and there was a crash — and a significant crash — as a result of it,” Vowles said. “What we’re working with him on is actually the progression up until that point. He dialed it from two seconds away from Alex to within a tenth in FP3 – in fact, he was faster in FP3. And it’s actually keeping that mindset all the way through that we’re trying to do.”

But there’s another component of Sargeant’s performance that is under-discussed – part of this is on the team. The American driver only spent one season in F2 before joining the F1 grid, and Williams’ sporting director Sven Smeets told me earlier this year that they see this season as “a learning year” for Sargeant. Vowles said in Qatar, “We have – and I’ve said this publicly – a responsibility to invest in our rookie drivers. We’ve put him there, and we’ve given him nearly no testing mileage. I’m used to 30,000km (18,641.136 miles), not 850km (528.166 miles).” — Madeline Coleman

Why does Mercedes keep allowing its drivers to fight? Multiple times it seems to have cost them tire life at best and points at worst, like in Qatar. — C R.

The clash between Lewis Hamilton and George Russell at the start in Qatar was one Mercedes actually got away with, to a certain point. The team still added another two points to its constructors’ lead over Ferrari as Russell recovered to beat Charles Leclerc, the sole Ferrari in the race after Carlos Sainz failed to start.

But it was still an ample opportunity missed. I don’t think Mercedes had the pace to fight Verstappen or the McLarens, yet to have two cars up there bringing back a decent haul of points would’ve been a boost in that fight against Ferrari, offering a little more breathing room.

In the heat of the moment, Russell vented on the radio about it being two races in a row there had been something between him and Hamilton, referring to their close wheel-to-wheel moments at Suzuka. Post-race in Japan, both had brushed it off as hard, fair racing without contact.

We’re seeing a high proportion of close moments in this pairing simply because Russell is more of a match to Hamilton than Valtteri Bottas was in previous years.

The Qatar incident was all on Hamilton, who took full responsibility after the race, and I don’t think there is much more Mercedes could have done to prevent it. Both drivers know to give their teammate a little more breathing room. It was a big misjudgment by Hamilton, who paid the price with his DNF.

The team has always prided itself on giving equal opportunities to Hamilton and Russell, and I don’t expect that to change going forward. The incident will have been discussed post-race, of course, and Hamilton was confident after the race that it wouldn’t impact his partnership with Russell.

“The relationship isn’t broken,” Hamilton said in the media pen after the race. “I don’t have any problems with George, we have a great relationship, and we always talk about things.

“This is definitely unfortunate, and I’m sure he was frustrated in the moment, as I was. But you know, we’ll talk about it offline, and we’ll move forward.” — Luke Smith

New to the sport, so excuse the ignorance. During night races, I often see sparks(?) from some cars. What is the cause, and do drivers find it to be distracting? — Rich D.

Great question!

Underneath the car are metallic skids to prevent damage to the planks on the floor which are placed at the front, middle and rear of the floor. By the end of the race, there is a mandated requirement for the skids’ thickness to ensure teams aren’t running the cars too close to the ground. Too much damage can result in a disqualification.

When the cars bottom out, that’s what causes sparks to fly. — Madeline Coleman

How likely is it that Apple TV takes over the worldwide broadcast rights for F1? — David C.

Apple has been expanding its interest in TV sporting rights recently, signing a $2.5 billion deal to show Major League Soccer for 10 years.

In the gap between Japan and Qatar, a story emerged suggesting Apple could submit a $2bn bid for F1’s global TV rights, which would obviously be a huge shift for the sport’s broadcasting landscape.

I checked in with some senior F1 sources, speaking on the condition of anonymity, and they confirmed there is no substance to the story.

It seems to be one of those stories that has been picked up and spooled up in the interest of clicks and social media clout instead of checking for the actual story behind it.

So no, Apple won’t bid for F1’s TV rights anytime soon. — Luke Smith

(Top photo of Lewis Hamilton: Qian Jun/MB Media/Getty Images)

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