Hamilton will head into the final five rounds with an almost uncatchable 50-point lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel after team-mate Valtteri Bottas was ordered out of his way at the Sochi Autodrom.
Bottas was in complete control of the race only for Mercedes to instruct him to step aside with 30 laps remaining.
To the absolute credit of Mercedes, they have avoided using team orders in their recent history, but with Vettel still in striking range of Hamilton, they adopted a change of tact here, denying Bottas his first win of 2018 and handing their star driver seven extra, and potentially, critical points.
Hamilton was a reluctant winner, and chose not to celebrate. Instead, he immediately sought to console Bottas.
This type of victory is not Hamilton’s style. Instead, he invited Bottas to join him on the top step of the podium, and even appeared to suggest to the deflated Finn that he should lift the winners’ trophy in front of the watching Russian president Vladimir Putin, who arrived for the concluding laps.
Bottas stared vacantly as the national anthems were played, and the mood had eased little by the time both Mercedes drivers appeared alongside Vettel for the post-race press conference.
“It doesn’t feel great,” Hamilton said. “I definitely don’t think I have finished first in my career, and feel the way that I do right now. Only time will tell if it was necessary, but if we were to lose the championship by one point, would you look back at this race and think we should have worked as a team?
“We are a team, and the team want to win both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships, so that is why the bosses took the decision.”
Toto Wolff, team principal for the Silver Arrows, admitted it was an agonising decision, and one which led to him enduring a restless night on Saturday after Bottas beat Hamilton to pole.
Team orders were regular practice for Ferrari during Michael Schumacher’s commanding era. Some, rather harshly, compared this result to the farce of Austria in 2002 when Rubens Barrichello was instructed to move out of Schumacher’s way on the final lap.
Such was the uproar, that it resulted in a ban on team orders which Ferrari breached when they ordered Felipe Massa aside for Fernando Alonso in Germany in 2010. At the end of that year, the ban was lifted. Unlike on both those occasions, Bottas, 110 points behind Hamilton before yesterday’s race, stood no chance of winning the drivers’ championship.
“At the end, if five points or three points are missing then you are the biggest idiot on the planet by prioritising Valtteri’s race over the championship,” Wolff said.
“Somebody needs to be the baddie and it’s me today. You need to weigh it up. To be the baddie on Sunday evening, for many right reasons, or be the idiot in Abu Dhabi at the end of the season. I’d rather be the baddie today.”