A rare mistake from Hamilton in qualifying allowed Bottas to put his car on pole position for the Russian Grand Prix as the dominant Mercedes duo locked out the front row.
Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel, who heads into Sunday’s race at the Sochi Autodrom 40 points behind Hamilton with only six rounds remaining, lines up in third after finishing more than half-a-second adrift.
Mercedes must be applauded for their refusal to adopt team orders in recent seasons, allowing Hamilton, and his former team-mate Nico Rosberg, to battle for victory.
But with Vettel – albeit spluttering towards the end of the season – still within striking range, and Mercedes just 37 points ahead of their Italian rivals in the fight for the constructors’ title, Toto Wolff, team principal for the Silver Arrows, indicated he will not allow his drivers to go wheel-to-wheel.
“We are not in a part of the season where I enjoy two Mercedes cars racing each other at the front,” he said.
“As much as I hate to say it as a race fan, but you need to calculate a little bit more at this stage of the season.”
Wolff revealed he will sit down with both Hamilton and Bottas, and the team’s senior engineers, on Sunday morning to discuss their strategy.
For Hamilton, he will want to win the race on merit, and it is implausible that he will demand Bottas steps aside. Bottas meanwhile, is searching for his opening win in a season where he has been a distant second to his team-mate.
“None of us like team orders because we have seen it in the past from other teams,” Wolff added. “Lewis wouldn’t want that because he wants to go for the win on his own, and Valtteri would not want it because he needs that victory.
“It is going to be difficult to tell Valterri that he is not allowed to race after putting it on pole. It is a very tricky decision to make.”
Bottas, who finished 0.145 sec clear of Hamilton, but is 110 points adrift in the championship, said: “My approach to the race is to win. You can’t have any other goal starting from pole.
“Obviously Lewis is leading the championship with a bit of a gap to Sebastian, and a very big gap to me, so you always need to keep those things in mind.”
Hamilton, magnanimous in defeat, added: “All of our goals is to win this race. Valtteri just did the better job today.”
Up until his mistake, Hamilton had been in a class of one and appeared set to claim the 80th pole of his career after topping the time sheets in the first two phases of qualifying.
But, three tenths up on Bottas in the opening sector of his final hot run, he ran wide at the right-handed turn seven and was forced to abort his lap.
It marked the first significant error of Hamilton’s title defence, yet it did not prove as costly as it may have been with Ferrari, despite running an upgraded package, well off the pace.
Vettel desperately needs to beat Hamilton in Sochi to stop the Briton, who has won four of the last five rounds, from running away with the title.
But to stand any chance of victory, the 31-year-old German will now have to navigate his way past not one, but two Mercedes cars at a track where overtaking is notoriously troublesome.
His best chance will come off the start line, and the 220mph charge down to the second bend. Last year, Bottas started behind both Vettel and Kimi
Raikkonen before winning the drag race and clinching the win.
“I have spoken to Valtteri and reminded him of what happened here last year,” Vettel said. “Maybe we can turn it around tomorrow. That would be nice.”
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