However, Hamilton was then instructed to slow down to aid Russell with DRS to defend from Sainz, which proved futile as the Spaniard blasted past and courted the sister Mercedes across the closing laps.
“It is quite difficult to organise the cars live,” Shovlin stated. “When we decided to switch them, it was more when we saw how quick Carlos was coming in behind them and Lewis in the middle could have been at risk who was [on] old tyres as well.
“Maybe it could have worked out better, but the thing is we were trying to protect against Lewis losing that position as well, as he was the one most likely to finish ahead of Carlos.”
The opening exchanges of the race in Suzuka saw the two Mercedes cars duel hard for position on two separate occasions.
Firstly, Russell launched a move up the inside of the final chicane on Lap 5 and appeared to have gained the high ground until Hamilton got back up the inside into Turn 1.
Then, a mistake from Hamilton into Degner 2 enabled Russell to size up a move into Spoon Curve, but the more experienced driver again rebuffed his team-mate’s advances as both cars ran wide.
That would be the end of their battle on an equal tyre footing, with Mercedes opting to split strategies. While Hamilton followed the optimal two-stop strategy, Russell endeavoured to make it to the end by only completing a solitary pit stop.
When asked if the on-track battle prompted that decision, Shovlin retorted: “No, not really. Because in terms of what the team’s doing, we’re trying to score points against Ferrari, certainly in a race like this.
“Once we realised that we’re not challenging McLaren for a podium, we’re looking at what’s going on with Ferrari.
“We were trying to use the two cars effectively to give us those opportunities, and being able to get one of them was useful damage limitation given that they both started ahead of us in the race.”
After being pushed wide by Hamilton, Russell exclaimed on the team radio: “Who do we want to fight? Each other, or the others?”
Mercedes Communications Director Bradley Lord, however, has downplayed the heated discussion, adding that the team will discuss matters behind closed doors.
“They raced each other hard, at a hard racers’ track,” he told Sky Sports F1. “So I think it’s always easy to read a lot into those radio messages in the heat of the moment.
“But as always, we do the talking about it a little bit out of the pressure and out of the high temperatures of the cockpit here today in Suzuka and in the engineering debrief afterwards, so I’m sure that’s where anything will get tidied up that needs tidying up.”