All of Motorsport Italy is celebrating Charles Leclerc’s victory at the Ferrari home race in Monza. But behind the scenes of the oldest current F1 team the mood is tense.
Ferrari insiders report that the debriefing on Saturday after qualifying was very heated. It was actually agreed that Vettel would provide Leclerc a slipstream in the first Q3 round – and the roles in the second run would be reversed. But due to the bizarre game slipstream poker we saw, there was no second round and Vettel lost out.
Vettel was anxious not to attack Leclerc directly on Saturday, but he was still able to look deep between the lines when he declared:
“Actually, we didn’t play poker. From our side the strategy was clear, that I give slipstream in the first run, and I get slipstream in the second run. But it was quite chaotic after all.”
Away from the TV cameras, it is said that Vettel was rather less gracious in the situation with rumours in the paddock that Vettel explained to Leclerc who the primary driver is and how Leclerc’s actions were undermining the team. Vettel is sure that his teammate deliberately prevented him from taking a shot at pole, an assessment that Mattia Binotto apparently shares.
Once Leclerc crossed the finish line on Sunday, the team boss’s first words on the pit radio were “be perdonato”, which means “I forgive you”. After the end of the qualifying Leclerc had signaled a degree of guilt when he radioed: “Sorry for the chaos in the last corner.”
“There were a few tensions in qualifying,” Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri laughs at the argument between his two drivers. In an interview with ‘Sky’ he puts into perspective the fact that Leclerc may have played ‘a blinder’ with his hand of cards: “He’s just a winner. If you go back in history, all the winners were like that. Michael was also a tough nut to crack”.
But what was the reason for Vettel’s outburst?
The second Q3-Run can be reconstructed by the live box radio of the onboard channels.
Vettel demanded already in the first chicane: “Tell Charles to get rid of him!” knowing that the lap would be tight, with Carlos Sainz’s McLaren apparently blocking.
Leclerc already knew at that time that the clock was running down. “It’s getting tight,” his race engineer told him. And a little later: “Push, six seconds. It’s tight. You have to get going. Push.”
But he made no effort to overtake Vettel. Instead, Sainz calmly passed the strolling Ferraris again.
Vettel was told again: “We have to push now!” To which he replied: “Then tell him to overtake me!” Vettel obviously knowing that the margin was very tight but the team were strangely silent as far through the lap as the Ascari complex, then Vettel drove through Ascari with only 3 seconds margin according to pit radio – but Leclerc was still behind him.
Prior to this, at Lesmo and then further along at Ascari Leclerc was again told that he had “zero margin”, but he was still behind Vettel. Eventually, at Ascari, the team radioed: “You can overtake Sebastian”. Leclerc did, but still didn’t get on the accelerator pedal, crawling passed the German.
By the time Vettel came out of the Parabolica, the traffic light was already red. Nevertheless, Vettel managed not to vent his anger at first: “Thank you, thank you” whilst waving to the fans. A few moments later, during the lap, he radioed again: “Anyway, the car was good. I think we were the fastest today. Even if not on the time screen.”
It seemed that Leclerc didn’t even know then that he hadn’t made it in time, crossing the line with the lights red, evidenced by the fact that his race engineer contacted him in the first sector, only for Leclerc to snap: “Let me drive the lap!”.
During the out lap it dawned on him that he now needed an explanation. After the apology, the excuse followed: “The problem is: At the beginning of the lap the Renault and the McLaren remained in the middle of the track. They were too late. That’s why we weren’t faster.” Of course, what he omitted from his explanation was that both Ferraris drove ahead of Sainz and Hülkenberg but still didn’t accelerate away.
Of course, the reluctance for Leclerc was probably because he didn’t want to be first on the track with zero tow himself, and he probably had no problem giving Vettel a tow. So Leclerc dawdled around until Sainz finally started the train. But it was already too late for Vettel.
“Seb was able to take pole position,” Leclerc admitted in interviews after the session. But the young Monegasque doesn’t see himself as responsible, but “the McLaren and the Renault”: “They stopped in the middle of the track and we couldn’t get past them.” maintains Leclerc.
“Seb overtook me in the situation because we were already pretty close. I stayed behind him until the back straight when they told me on the radio that I could overtake him. So I overtook him. But I didn’t have time for myself to prepare the lap properly either. Very sad.”
“Situations like the one in the second corner where two cars drive so slowly side by side shouldn’t happen. I can’t drive at only 20 km/h, we couldn’t overtake either. Most drivers wanted to overtake but didn’t have the chance. So, in the end, it came to this huge chaos.”
An explanation that Vettel has a hard time believing it seems. The big question now is whether this has created a rift between the two that can no longer be repaired – or whether the matter in the heat of the moment was more dramatic than it actually is.
Binotto is optimistic: “This won’t change anything.”
“We talked about it internally,” he claims. “There are different opinions, because the outcome was very strange for everyone. But the most important thing is that Seb was the first one to say, ‘Let’s look ahead’. These guys are great, I can rely on them. I’m pretty sure it won’t have any effect.”
But Monza may well have one effect: a new pecking order at Ferrari. Leclerc is increasingly overtaking Vettel – and has overtaken the German for the first time in the drivers’ championship as well. Vettel started the season as No. 1.
“Things change over time,” Ferrari CEO Camilleri was heard saying in the paddock during interviews with the Italian media.
“We are very satisfied with Charles. He did an extraordinary job today. Everyone has seen that,” says Camilleri – but at the same time Vettel also strengthens his back: “I’d just like to say to the people who try to write Seb off that he’s an amazing driver. I have great confidence that Seb will strike back!”
That remains to be seen.