Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said Charles Leclerc was asked to ensure Ferrari ran one-two at the start of the Russian Grand Prix in a plan that led to Sunday’s team orders row.
Leclerc qualified on pole alongside Lewis Hamilton with team-mate Sebastian Vettel directly behind in third place. In order to help Vettel get ahead of Hamilton, Leclerc did not defend the inside line against the Mercedes but instead stayed to the outside so Vettel could pick up a slipstream that ultimately gave the German the lead, something Binotto says was agreed pre-race.
“Obviously looking at the past races in Russia, we know that it is important to be ahead at the first lap, because normally if you start first, you may finish first,” Binotto said. “As a team, obviously the victory was key, so we decided that the most important thing for us was to be first and second on the first lap, because by being first and second, we would have somehow control and manage the pace and control the positions, which is what was happening.
“We were first and second, and as a matter of fact we were controlling the race, and without our reliability issues, we would have kept the positions after the pit stops. And it is very difficult to overtake, as we can see with Charles at the very end of the race, I’m pretty sure he had better pace than (Valtteri) Bottas, but again it was very difficult to overtake.
“Being first and second was the key objective. How can you do that when you start first and third, and certainly protecting the first position but also make sure that you gain a position being second?
“We agreed together that the best way was not to give any slipstream to Hamilton at first, because giving a slipstream to Hamilton would give him some advantage, at least some possibility. And therefore Charles would give the slipstream to Seb, that was what we agreed and discussed. But by giving the slipstream to Seb and not giving the position (to Hamilton), it would give an advantage to Seb which later on in the race we could give back by swapping the cars. So that was the deal.”
Binotto says Vettel was instructed to give up the lead based on the team’s reading of how the start panned out, but after Vettel declined to do so he insists Ferrari did not then manufacture a position change through the pit stops.
“Looking at the video, our judgement that the start went as planned, and therefore we thought it was right to ask Seb to swap the positions. Eventually the two drivers may have different opinions by driving the car, but that is something which we may discuss with them.
“We initially asked Seb to give the position back, but it’s fair enough to say at that stage in the race that maybe Charles was not close enough, and we would have lost some time on track. Later on, Seb was quite fast and gained some track advantage on Charles. So we knew that we could decide to do it later on.
“The undercut was not for the reason [of] giving back the position to Charles. The undercut was [also] because Charles stopped because he had worn tires, his left-rear was starting to be worn, so it was the right moment for him to pit. We knew as well that if we had stopped both our cars there, we would have been vulnerable on Safety Cars by giving the lead to Hamilton, so we tried to stay out as much as we could with Seb, simply to protect in case of Safety Cars later in the race.
“Again, Seb, when his tires were worn, it was the right moment to pit. As a matter of fact, Charles was ahead, Seb was behind, but the race was still not over and there would have been plenty of opportunity to decide with them what would have been the best option later on.”