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Gloves off in F1 free-for-all for Bottas, Hami

Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are released from team rules and free to race as they wish, says Mercedes boss Totto Wolff © AFP / Alexander NEMENOV

BAKU, Azerbaijan, Apr 29Mercedes team chief Toto Wolff has confirmed that the victorious Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are free to fight for success without the restraints of team orders, as they showed in their scrap to win the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

The pair battled wheel to wheel on the opening lap on Sunday and were fighting hard again in the closing stages when defending champion Hamilton put Bottas under pressure as they closed out an unprecedented fourth consecutive season-opening one-two triumph.

In contrast to Ferrari, where team orders have been used frequently this season, Mercedes have handed responsibility to the drivers and not felt any need to ask them to hold positions.

“We let them race,” said Wolff. “They are experienced. They know that the racing must be clean. Lap one was very clean –- and this is a track where we mustn’t take crazy risks because you could lose both cars.

“When we talk to them, it’s always open and everyone can hear them, but then, obviously, you have the intercom too which is only an internal line.

“But I was not talking to the drivers. If I push the driver button, I know it myself –- so I am not giving myself permission to talk to them because I get emotional and then, sometimes, regret what I say.”

Instead, said Wolff, his pit-wall team hold a discussion about their strategy and how the race is unfolding.

“We acknowledged that it could get a little bit racy at the end, but we didn’t talk to them.”

– Amazing –

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Mercedes’ success on the streets of Baku made them the first team in modern times to reel off four season-opening one-twos.

Ferrari had six consecutive one-twos in 1952 when the world championship included, officially, the Indianapolis 500, which they did not enter as it was run under different regulations.

The American event was the second race of the calendar and predictably was dominated by American teams and drivers who took no part in the rest of the series.

The modern Mercedes team enjoyed 12 one-twos overall in 2015, but were beaten by Sebastian Vettel in a Ferrari at the second race held in Malaysia.

“It’s amazing that we can break a record now in our sixth year, trying to push the boundaries, but also trying to keep both feet on the ground and not to be too self-confident,” said Wolff. “It’s fantastic.”

After four races this season, Bottas and Hamilton have two wins apiece with the Finn ahead by one point courtesy of the fastest lap he clocked at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix.

Hamilton admitted he faced a much stronger team-mate this year than last after Sunday’s race.

“Valtteri has really stepped up this year,” he said. “He is happy in the car and he is driving fantastically well. It is going to take a really great performance to out-perform him.”

His words echoed the feelings of Ferrari team chief Mattia Binotto.

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After seeing Vettel finish third behind the Mercedes men, he conceded: “Four races into the season, obviously they are very strong – no wins for Ferrari and four for Mercedes…

“But I think that the gap is not as big as the points suggest. Certainly, they have a slightly better car, but the positions don’t really show our true potential.”

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