Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto had already announced on Saturday that if there were any doubt, he would always bet on Sebastian Vettel to get a result, so when we heard the team order to allow Vettel to pass Leclerc, it was certainly no surprise.
“If there is a $30 million man and a $2.5 million man, then the hierarchy is already quite clear,” pundit Toni Vilander told Finland’s MTV.
Nevertheless, the Italian and Spanish press are now hitting on out the Scuderia and their current number one driver.
“It would be better if Ferrari finally understood that they have hired the right driver, and it is Charles Leclerc. Maranello should take the captain’s armband from Vettel and give it to Leclerc.” writes Corriere dello Sport.
“Charles was the lamb who was completely sacrificed for the house of Maranello,” reads the Spanish newspaper Marca.
But the situation is not quite so black and white.
Sebastian Vettel was clearly the faster man in China. Both in the free practice sessions and in qualifying. At the start Leclerc only passed the German because Vettel was trapped behind the slowly started Bottas, the German had nowhere to go.
After that, Vettel was permanently stuck in Leclerc’s slipstream, ruining his tyres in the process. So really, the only mistake Ferrari made was that they switched places too late. Team boss Binotto also admits: “It was difficult to place the order.” further showing that perhaps Binotto wasn’t decisive enough at the critical moment.
Perhaps we should be looking more at Leclercs side of the garage as the reason for the poor result in China?
Dissecting what happened, Leclerc questioned the decision via pit radio, the Monegasque demanded that he required explanation in the first place. And as motorsportmagazine.com reports, Leclerc was allowed to release more horsepower from MGU-K and turbo during a phase before the decisive maneuver, or this is what the other teams who listened to Ferrari’s pit radio are telling us.
It’s clear that Vettel, with the more conservative engine settings, couldn’t pass his team-mate on his own. A ridiculous circumstance that doesn’t well fit with the fact that the Ferrari bosses on the pit wall were just preparing to swap places.
Seen from the outside, for many fans this moment is reminiscent of Felipe Massa and his former race engineer Rob Smedley at Hockenheim in 2010. At that time the radio message became legendary: “Felipe, Fernando is faster than you” during a time when direct team orders were disallowed in F1.
Was it Leclerc’s performance engineer Jock Clear who recommended his protégé to drive with more engine power? Jock Clear has worked with Jacques Villeneuve and Michael Schumacher in the past, both strong characters who wouldn’t take kindly to being ‘no.2’.
The fact is Binotto is not faced with an easy situation at Ferrari. Not only because of the pressure of the Italian press but also for the fact that Leclerc has powerful political support with his manager Nicolas Todt.
Todt is the son of FIA President Jean Todt, who still has influence at Ferrari as a former head of the successful team. Leclerc has learned from the Todt family in recent years how to pull the strings as a driver in the background. It’s quite possible that he deliberately openly questioned the pit radio strategy.
In the press session after the race, Leclerc remained remarkably cool, saying:
“After our meeting I know that it was a difficult decision”. You couldn’t tell from his face whether he was serious or playing poker with the press.
Vettel, on the other hand, shows clearly the mental strain. He seemed uneasy, and even verbally attacked some reporters who asked about the team order issue, accusing them of bad journalism.
Mercedes Motorsport Director Toto Wolff, who in recent years has turned Valtteri Bottas into a Hamilton ‘wingman’ (haha), knows what it’s like during the Rosberg / Hamilton days: “I can completely understand Ferrari, but it gets very complicated as soon as you start with these things. You set a precedent and create problems for yourself.”
adding “It’s not a Ferrari problem. It’s a problem for any team that has two alphas at the wheel.”
Ferrari surely does not need this additional problem, the car setup isn’t working, despite a powerful engine and now a tricky teammate battle in the mix.
Could we see a total implosion by mid-season?