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In The Driver's Seat

Mercedes caught between rocking their drivers and a hard crash

A long time ago, a colleague and I stood atop a grassy knoll, at the final corner of the Suzuka Circuit in Japan.

"It's a long way to have come, if they collide," we said. Two minutes later, the cloud of dust there confirmed that deadly rivals Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost had indeed done just that to conclude their 1990 Formula One Japanese Grand Prix in the gravel.

The year before, such had been their simmering rivalry as team-mates at McLaren, that Dodge City had not been big enough for the both of them. Prost had gone to Ferrari, but still their bitter enmity continued, as Senna deliberately took him out and thus sealed his own second world title.

So if you ask whether I saw the clash coming between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg in Spielberg on Sunday afternoon, the answer is yes, of course.

A devotee of Jim Clark, I have never cared for rough tactics, but this isn't tiddlywinks and these days, the financial stakes are high.

Hamilton and Rosberg have far and away the best car... Mercedes are to be praised for having the courage to let them fight, for to do it any other way would be utter disaster for Formula One.

Hamilton and Rosberg have far and away the best car in F1. The Englishman wants a third successive world title, to make his tally four; the German wants to emulate his father Keke and take his first. They are so evenly matched that contact is always going to be likely.

It happened at Spa in 2014, and again in Spain this year. When you have two hugely motivated and competitive individuals, it's hard to rein in their passion.

Mercedes are to be praised for having the courage to let them fight, for to do it any other way would be utter disaster for Formula One.

Hamilton was booed on the rostrum in Austria - unfairly if you agree with the stewards' decision to doubly penalise Rosberg.

We saw something similar here back in 2002, but the circumstances underlying such behaviour then were far worse. Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello had Michael Schumacher beaten all weekend and deserved to win. After all, at the same race the previous year, he had been cheated of rightful success by orders imposed by team boss Jean Todt - today the president of the International Automobile Federation - that Schumi should be allowed to win.

Now, to the intense dislike of everyone else, Todt again insisted on the Brazilian handing undeserved victory to his so-called team leader.

When Schumacher - who was believed to have had such things enshrined in his contracts - put on a display of embarrassment and tried to insist that Barrichello take the top spot on the rostrum, and then took the first-place trophy from the Austrian Chancellor and handed it to his team-mate, the crowd saw through it and jeered.

That isn't racing, and it isn't sport, though team orders can highlight nobility, such as that shown by the faster Gilles Villeneuve to Ferrari partner Jody Scheckter at Monza in 1979.

Ferrari had decreed that whoever won at Monaco would be their favoured championship challenger for the rest of the year. Scheckter won there, so Villeneuve was duty-bound to ride shotgun in Italy, even though passing Scheckter would have prolonged his own title aspirations. But one of the fastest men ever seen in F1 was too honourable to resort to such underhand tactics. Scheckter became champion.

In 1982, Villeneuve was allegedly cheated of victory in San Marino by team-mate Didier Pironi, and that is widely believed to have played a key role in the French Canadian's death at the next race.

Team orders suck, and they cheat the public. What satisfaction can there possibly be in winning, when the other guy has a hand tied behind his back?

What should Mercedes do?

In desperation, boss Toto Wolff admitted on Sunday that the time might finally have come to consider imposing orders on his errant racers - "freeze the order at a certain stage in the race". This is for the pragmatic reason that continual collisions are not the reason why Mercedes invest so much in their racing programme. Going home empty-handed in Barcelona really hurt.

He said: "It's unpopular, it makes me puke, because I like to see them race, but if racing is not possible without contact, then that's the consequence."

I really hope it never comes to that.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 05, 2016, with the headline 'Mercedes caught between rocking their drivers and a hard crash'. Print Edition | Subscribe