MEDLAND: Ferrari's happy headache

Image by Mauger/LAT

MEDLAND: Ferrari's happy headache

Insights & Analysis

MEDLAND: Ferrari's happy headache

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Mattia Binotto has definitely got a tough task on his hands right now trying to handle two drivers who seem to be getting away from him, but I doubt he would have it any other way.

The Ferrari team principal saw this coming, and saw it coming a while ago. In fact, he expected it much earlier.

There’s a reason that Ferrari was made a pre-season favorite this year. The lap times throughout testing were impressive, even if there were some concerns about the development potential of the low-drag concept.

At that point in the year, Binotto was very clear that Sebastian Vettel would get priority. As a four-time world champion who had won a number of races for Ferrari and comprehensively outperformed Kimi Raikkonen, he had earned it.

Far from being a slight on Charles Leclerc, it was actually a move designed to take the pressure off the 21-year-old. Ferrari is not a place where drivers traditionally get a lot of time, but there was a chance Leclerc was going to need it. It’s only his second season in F1, after all.

So Vettel was going to get preferential treatment if required, while Leclerc found his feet. Ferrari wanted to make the most of what looked like being an early advantage, so it was sensible thinking.

But Mercedes got its act together, and Ferrari found itself battling a number of unexpected weaknesses that could not be quickly addressed. Instead it was Mercedes with a clear early advantage, and the potential for driver headaches was a non-issue because the Scuderia was rarely fighting for wins.

That’s not the situation now. Ferrari’s car development after the summer break has been impressive, and Leclerc has really hit his stride since the Canadian Grand Prix — ironically a race that Ferrari should have won.

Instead of being able to capitalize on an early advantage, the stronger Ferrari has revealed itself later in the year; the team finally clicking through a combination of upgrades and set-up. At this stage, there is no championship picture to really worry about, just an internal fight for status between Leclerc and Vettel.

Vettel started the season as Ferrari’s designated No.1, but Leclerc’s recent form has made the situation a little more complicated. Image by Dunbar/LAT

It is obvious that Ferrari has a problem — the radio messages during the Russian Grand Prix make it clear for all to see.

I suspect it stems as much from the Italian Grand Prix as anywhere else, because Vettel does not have a short memory. Leclerc did not get in the right position to help give his teammate a tow during the chaotic final runs in Q3 at Monza, and while that could be explained in part by the unusual nature of the situation, it was made clear that Ferrari didn’t see the youngster as blameless when Binotto said he was “forgiven” for what happened on Saturday after winning the race on Sunday.

If Ferrari had noted Leclerc was up to a bit of mischief, you can only imagine what Vettel felt. And this is the same driver who ignored the infamous ‘Multi 21’ order from Red Bull at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix because he was still unhappy at teammate Mark Webber’s lack of support at the title-deciding Brazilian Grand Prix four months earlier.

So when Vettel made a strong start to lead Leclerc and Ferrari ran one-two on the road in Russia, it’s hardly surprising the German — who has faced plenty of criticism for some of his performances over the past 18 months — was not in the mood to swap positions.

Arguably, the bigger problem was not Ferrari’s tactics at the start of the race, but the complexity with which it was trying to switch the places around so early in the grand prix. Risky as it was to give the drivers instructions for the run to the first braking zone — when they need to rely on their instincts perhaps more than at any other time in a race — the start worked perfectly, and Ferrari ran one-two despite not having qualified in those positions.

With Lewis Hamilton so close behind, to then try and reverse the order seemed foolish. The advantage over Mercedes would have been halved if Vettel moved over in those opening laps, so it was eventually the right call to delay a switch to later in the race.

It has been pointed out that Binotto is an engineer by trade and not a manager, so his focus is primarily on finding the quickest way to the finish of the race with both cars. Whether it seems sporting or keeps both happy is not at the forefront of his mind when he can see the potential for a team one-two.

And just like Singapore, a team one-two was on the cards.

The atmosphere is cordial now — but what about next year if there’s a championship in play? Image by LAT

Much is being made of the fight for supremacy between Vettel and Leclerc, and it is one that could well prove explosive, but so far it is only working for Ferrari. Having two very competitive drivers resulted in the first win in Belgium — where Vettel was able to impact Hamilton’s race just enough to stop him getting to Leclerc in the closing stages — and again in Singapore, where Vettel benefited from the undercut.

Had Vettel not retired in Russia, the Virtual Safety Car would not have been seen, Mercedes would not have got a free stop and Leclerc would have led his teammate, with a second consecutive one-two the likely result despite such close performance levels between Ferrari and Mercedes.

In that latter scenario, the team orders row would have been even bigger because one of the two drivers would have lost out on victory, but that’s exactly what Binotto would have preferred over a third-place finish and a retirement.

Leclerc was promoted because Raikkonen wasn’t regularly getting close enough to Vettel or beating him, and now the Monegasque is doing exactly what was hoped of him.

With strong characters showing a high level of performance in a race-winning car, there is bound to be the odd flashpoint and challenging situation, with each not completely bowing to the team’s authority. But despite that added complication, they’ll win more points than they’ll lose, and that’s all Binotto will really care about.

 

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