Pairing its protégé with a four-time World Champion meant Ferrari was always going to face a delicate balance through 2019 but a simmering rivalry boiled over in Brazil as Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel collided. Motorsport Week takes a look at the inevitable incident and ponders what path Ferrari takes next to keep a lid on tensions into 2020.
In recruiting Leclerc for 2019 it represented a shift in policy from Ferrari away from experience and towards youth. It ensured that Ferrari had a star asset under lock and key through at least 2022 and emphasised that it had sufficient trust in Leclerc to hand him a prized seat just 21 races into his career. It also hinted at another subtler shift. Vettel was fast but fragile through 2017 and 2018 as legitimate title bids ultimately collapsed, with the driver playing more than his fair share in the unravelling of Maranello’s hopes. Leclerc, as the new boy and with lower expectations, had a lot less to lose than Vettel heading into 2019.
Vettel was regarded as Ferrari’s leader early in the season with Mattia Binotto emphasising that in a 50-50 situation the four-time champion would be favoured. That was little surprise, but just two races into the campaign Leclerc’s spectacular performance in Bahrain brought the notion of driver equality back into the spotlight. The issue subsided through the next events courtesy of Vettel’s edge and Ferrari’s inferiority up against the Mercedes steamroller, but from France onwards Leclerc re-emerged as a potent force. Leclerc worked on his weaknesses while the peakier Vettel struggled to replicate the strong feeling he enjoyed with the SF90 pre-season.
Leclerc finally delivered Ferrari’s first 2019 victory in Belgium, with Vettel assisting the cause on his brief – but vital – defence against Lewis Hamilton, while six days later the first real flashpoint occurred in Italy. Vettel was ostensibly favoured in receiving priority for the final Q3 runs but the confusion during the session’s denouement cemented Leclerc’s pole, leaving a furious Vettel to stew at his team-mate’s actions. Behind closed doors Leclerc was given a ticking off, with Binotto’s post-race message of ‘perdonado’ (you are forgiven) a reminder of the situation even amid the euphoric scenes at Monza.
In Singapore the strategy took away a likely win from Leclerc and left it in Vettel’s clutches, prompting Leclerc to seek answers, while just a week later in Russia an unnecessary team orders row erupted following confusion over the start procedure. Then came Brazil.
The late Safety Car facilitated Leclerc’s prospects as he wiped out his deficit – following his recovery from P14 – and Ferrari fitted Softs to his car, a few laps fresher than those on Vettel’s SF90. At that point, they were split by Alexander Albon’s Red Bull, but the Anglo-Thai’s excellent move around the outside of Vettel left the German susceptible to Leclerc's unrepentant pace.
Ferrari had ultimately boxed itself into a no-win position. Tell Vettel to move aside and it risked upsetting him. Tell Leclerc to hold firm and it would have had the same outcome. Given Ferrari was clear in second in the Constructors' Championship, and the drivers were contesting third in their own standings, Ferrari trusted them to race.
As Leclerc continued to hound Vettel on fresher tyres, he eventually boldly got past into the Senna S but Vettel was not about to allow his younger team-mate to get the better of him. Leclerc’s inside line into the Senna S compromised his exit and Vettel used his superior speed through the Curva do Sol to force the issue along the Reta Oposta. Leclerc moved central, giving Vettel a car’s width, which he took, but the German kept moving and the lightest of brushes had a cataclysmic outcome.
Comparisons were drawn between the clash and the accident that befell Vettel and Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber at the 2010 Turkish Grand Prix. There were certainly sufficient similarities.
Binotto mentioned post-race, during a media briefing which the drivers did not attend, that he felt he has been criticised for favouring one driver, and then criticised for letting them race. Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.
"I think when we've tried to manage the drivers we've been criticised by doing it and when they're free to fight, we've also been criticised," said Binotto.
Ferrari has long adopted a number one and number two policy, particularly through the era of Michael Schumacher, with its last major in-house battle for title supremacy coming in 1982. The acrimonious situation post-Imola in 1982 between Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi ultimately went unresolved due to the Canadian’s untimely death at Zolder two weeks later. Pironi’s career ended months after in another high-speed accident in one of the darkest chapters in Ferrari’s history. It would not win a title until 1999.
While Vettel/Leclerc doesn't echo something close to being as serious, it's imperative Binotto quashes any lingering emotions between his drivers to prevent further clashes to maximise his team's chances of ensuring any future success.
Binotto made it clear after the race that he will meet with his drivers at the team's headquarters in Maranello to discuss the situation, not to chastise them, and it is up to them to work out their differences and recognise their own failures in handling the situation.
"I don't think it's a matter of managing here, it's a matter of recognising eventually what has been the actions and the mistakes,” he said. “And I think that's whether you're a driver an engineer, you are whatever you are doing, recognising mistakes is important because it can only make you better.
"So I think what will be important with both drivers is to understand what happened, making sure at least not in the heat, but when we will have time together in Maranello to understand what happened and the mistake, at least it's not me to blame them, but for them to recognise it."
The big question – with no easy answer – is how does Ferrari find a comfortable conclusion. Formula 1 is littered with cases of intra-team clashes and acrimonious relationships among title-winning teams. The best cases are 1989 (McLaren/Senna/Prost) and 2016 (Mercedes/Hamilton/Rosberg). But they came at teams with dominant packages.
Should Ferrari's 2020 challenger finally prove a consistent title contender, Binotto cannot afford to have his driver line-up be at war with each other and score an own goal in allowing chief rivals Mercedes another swift road to a record-breaking seventh straight championship. On the evidence of recent events, there is the prospect of a three-way team battle in 2020 and Ferrari must grasp every opportunity if it is to end a 12-year title battle. Warring drivers in a close battle have handed the golden trophy to a rival team in the past: just look at 1986 and 2007.
Vettel and Leclerc must work together in order to maximise their own potential in a team which is certainly capable of taking the challenge to the Silver Arrows in 2020. Neither would accept the other being favoured. But can they be trusted to race fairly? Over to you Mattia.