Mercedes have told Valtteri Bottas that they will carry on using team orders until Lewis Hamilton secures the world championship.
Hamilton won in Russia last Sunday to extend his title lead over Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel to 50 points after Bottas was instructed to move aside for his team-mate.
The controversial decision caused uproar among some of the sport’s fans, while Bottas, and for that matter Hamilton – who admitted it was the hollowest victory of his career – were left uncomfortable by the order.
Hamilton revealed at Suzuka ahead of the Japanese Grand Prix that he did not want to be on the podium in Sochi to celebrate the 70th win of his career which edges him ever closer to a fifth championship.
Up until last Sunday, Mercedes had largely allowed their drivers to race, but Bottas admitted he now faces the prospect of being told to step aside once more for Hamilton with only five races and 125 points left to fight over.
“It could definitely happen again,” Bottas, 117 points adrift of Hamilton, said.
“Yes [Mercedes have told me], and that is what I expect.
“I will be supporting Lewis. I just need to accept it and it is now the situation I am in because of everything that has happened earlier in the season. I can’t fight any more for the championship.
“I am a team player and I am willing to help.
“But it doesn’t mean that I am not a racer and I don’t want to win. Winning is everything, but that time will come later.”
Hamilton and Mercedes boss Toto Wolff, who admitted he spent last Saturday night and much of the race in Sochi agonising over the switch, toasted an absent Bottas with 500 staff at the team factory in Brackley, Northamptonshire on Monday. Bottas was not present after travelling, as scheduled, straight to Japan from Russia.
Reflecting on last Sunday, Hamilton added: “It was super-uncomfortable on the podium, and I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to be up there, and it didn’t feel right standing on the top step.”
The 33-year-old Englishman arrives at a track which he has dominated in recent years, winning three of the last four races, while his Mercedes team have not been beaten here since 2013.
While Hamilton is set to be aided by Bottas for the remainder of the season, it is quite likely he will not have to rely on the Finn, having spent much of the season comfortably clear of his team-mate.
Indeed, Bottas’ pole lap marked the first time he had out-qualified Hamilton on merit in six races. The British driver has also won eight times this year. Bottas is yet to get off the mark. Hamilton added: “I don’t arrive here thinking that Valtteri has to work for me.
“I have given my hardest throughout the year, and conducted myself in the right way. This has been the best-performing season so far in my career.
“This is the most unusual sport in the sense that you have the drivers’ and constructors’ championships. So unlike football where everyone works toward one goal there are two goals here and you are conflicted.
“Like some of the fans, I am definitely split [on team orders], but it has happened, it is done and dusted, and collectively as a team we still stay united.”
Vettel, meanwhile, insists he will not spoil his Japanese Grand Prix weekend by reflecting on Hamilton’s dominant streak.
The German has triumphed just once since winning at Silverstone in July, while Hamilton has scored five victories in the last six rounds.
Speaking in Suzuka, Vettel said: “I don’t like the now or never approach as there’s not much sense in that.
“I didn’t know that Hamilton had beaten me in five out of six races, so now I know, the secret as before has been not to count.
“I love this track – it is my favourite in the world – so I had better enjoy it, and not spoil it by starting to count the things that are against me and focus on the things that work instead.”
Ferrari have enjoyed the superior machinery over Mercedes for much of the campaign, but the Italian team were a distant second to their rivals in Russia last weekend.
But while Vettel denied a suggestion that Ferrari have taken a wrong turn with the design of their upgraded car, he admitted it will be hard for his team to turn things around in the space of just seven days.
“Within a week you can’t do too many things differently to the car, so we hope that the track suits us a bit better than it did in Sochi,” added Vettel.
“We haven’t lost direction. We have made progress with our car. You never know where you are in comparison to the others, but I’m pretty sure by speaking to all our engineers that we are where we wanted to be. “Of course you would like to be further ahead with more performance, but that’s the same for everyone.”