By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Mercedes are almost ready to let Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg off the leash now that the title-chasing pair have secured the team's first Formula One constructors' world championship. Almost, but not quite.
"If you look at the points, we have made a massive step towards the drivers' title," said Mercedes motorsport head Toto Wolff after the team's ninth one-two and 13th win of the season in Sunday's inaugural Russian Grand Prix.
"So we could be coming into a situation which everybody would love of course, and it's safe to let them race in the way they want to race."
Wolff said that for the time being, until it was mathematically certain that the Mercedes drivers could not be overtaken, there remained "an invisible little leash" restraining them.
While there is no question in anyone's mind that Hamilton or Rosberg will be crowned champion at the end of the season, there is still the slimmest of chances that Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo could do it.
The Australian is 92 points behind Hamilton and 75 adrift of Rosberg with 100 remaining to be won from the last three races. No other driver is in contention.
Ricciardo is the only man other than the Mercedes drivers to have won this season but he would still need three more victories to have any chance and even then it would require the Silver Arrows to draw an unthinkable blank.
Realistically, his chances are likely to be snuffed out at the next race in Austin, Texas, in three weeks' time.
The one thing Mercedes do not want is to go to Abu Dhabi with Ricciardo still in with a shout and double points -- 50 for the winner -- available for the first time.
The twist in the tail means Hamilton can take nothing for granted, despite having won more than twice as many races as his team mate. He said he would just focus on trying to win as always.
"Whatever will be, will be," he told reporters on Sunday night. "For me, it's important not to put any negative energy or concern out there, and there's no need to be concerned because I've the utmost belief in this team and the car, and I'm in the best form of my life.
"There's no point thinking 'What if this happens or that happens, or what happens if he wins?'. There's no point thinking those things.
"I honestly think that's the wrong way to look at it. It's like looking at a glass that's either half empty or half full. That's just the wrong approach."
The 2008 world champion's triumph in Sochi made him only the fourth driver -- after Michael Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and his compatriot Nigel Mansell -- to win nine races in a single season.
Rosberg has won four so far, Ricciardo three.
Yet the Briton is still only 17 points clear of the German who has everything to play for.
It is not beyond the realms of possibility for Hamilton to win 11 races this season and still end up without the title if Rosberg finishes second in the next two and then wins in Abu Dhabi with Hamilton suffering a retirement.
For the moment, however, Hamilton is in the form of his life. His victory in Sochi was the fourth in a row for the Briton and he was quickest all weekend.
"I have seen Lewis in such a great state of mind. He is a happy person. He is happy in his life, he is happy in the team," said Wolff, who made clear he wanted the Briton to stay beyond the end of next year when his contract expires.
"There is so much competition in the team between the drivers but we are still having this team feeling. In the briefings, in our discussions, there is energy. And it's moving the team forward.
"He (Hamilton) is definitely in a different league since I first met him."
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin, editing by Ian Chadband)