3 October 2019

The situation at Ferrari

There is plenty of blather out there on the Internet today about Ferrari team orders and the relationship between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc... 

The facts are as follows: Ferrari planned to use Charles Leclerc to give Sebastian Vettel a tow at the start of the Russian Grand Prix, to get him ahead of Lewis Hamilton and ensure a Ferrari 1-2. The strategy worked well and Vettel emerged ahead of Leclerc and Hamilton. He was then told to give the place back as agreed but did he not immediately do so, arguing that Leclerc needed to be closer to him in order to make the pass. Leclerc complained on the radio and was told “We will do the swap later”.

While all this was going on Vettel set a series of fastest laps and the gap between the two Ferraris grew from 1.1 secs after the initial Safety Car to just over four seconds on lap 21. Leclerc then pitted. Vettel pitted four laps later and emerged behind his team-mate. Charles spent 29.548s in the pit lane, Sebastian was there for 29.860s, so the difference between the two was made up by Leclerc lapping quickly in the four laps between the two stops. In other words, Leclerc undercut Vettel to get into the lead. The swap had been achieved. Vettel retired shortly afterwards.

However, this is not the full story because one must add background information from Monza where Vettel gave Charles a tow for the first run in Q3 and Leclerc was due to give him a tow for the final run. The Monegasque had the provisional pole position and did not give Sebastian the promised tow. Vettel called the team several times to get Charles to go ahead of him and was even gesticulating from the cockpit but by the time Leclerc made the move, it was too late. Vettel was unhappy about what had happened, feeling that he had been screwed by his team-mate. After they had all cooled down they said all the right things, as racing drivers do, but Vettel will probably have felt that Leclerc was not to be trusted. Sochi should perhaps be seen as payback for what happened in Monza, as a message to Charles that “two can play at that game”.

Did Sebastian intend to ignore the deal and race the finish ahead? We will never know. He must have known that he was being undercut and did not try to cover the move and so one might conclude that he was simply making a point.

The real question is whether or not these games will stop or not. Both men know where they stand. They cannot trust one another. It is now down to Ferrari to manage the situation. The best way to do this is to be clear and fair. So that both men know where they stand and nothing is left open to interpretation. If Ferrari does not do this, then there is a danger that the situation will escalate.

It is also worth looking at the slightly bigger picture. As far as we know, both men have contracts that last until the end of next year. It is highly likely that Leclerc’s contract will have an option for the team to retain his services. In fact, negotiations are probably already ongoing on to extend his deal as Ferrari will want its young star to be locked in for the future as soon as possible. At the moment Leclerc is being paid a fraction of Vettel’s salary (it is rumoured to be $2.5 million compared to $45 million), although both men are probably paid on a base salary with bonuses paid according to results, so the figures can only be estimates.

Whatever the details, this is the kind of gap that exists. Obviously Leclerc wants more in the future. The real question is whether or not Vettel has a future with the team. The status of team leader is one that is won and lost on the race track and it is this process that is currently playing out. Vettel needs to beat Leclerc and Leclerc needs to beat Vettel.

Ferrari is a pragmatic organisation and knows that this situation is not the ideal and that history has shown that having two number one drivers in a team is rarely a good idea. Ferrari has usually resorted to a number one and a good number two (or perhaps what one might call “a number one and a half”). This was the case with Vettel-Kimi Raikkonen, Fernando Alonso-Felipe Massa and Michael Schumacher-Rubens Barrichello and Schumacher-Eddie Irvine. Thus it makes sense for Ferrari to be looking for a driver of that ilk, rather than hoping that Vettel will accept such a position.

One must add to this mix the question of money. If Vettel moves on, Ferrari can pay Leclerc 10 times what he is currently earning and pay a second driver $5 million and still save $20 million a year. The logical conclusion in all of this is that the best strategy for Ferrari would be to keep Leclerc and hire a good “number one and a half” for 2021.

The driver squabbles are not going to help Ferrari this year. The team may have the fastest car, but the idea of a championship challenge requires Mercedes to come off the rails and at the moment Ferrari looks more rickety than Merc does. Lewis Hamilton currently leads Leclerc by 107 points which means that Charles must outscore Lewis by 18 points each race in each of the final six events. The only way that is going to happen is if Hamilton fails to finish a number of races.

Is that possible? Yes.

Is it likely? Well, Lewis has retired from only two races in the last four seasons so one can argue whether the probability is for continued reliability or for cataclysmic failures… who knows?

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