A blistering start by Sebastian Vettel seemed to pave the way for a great day for Ferrari. But Vettel controversially ignored team orders and was then forced to retire, opening the door for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.
When Sebastian Vettel pulled off a dream start, darting past Lewis Hamilton and then taking his teammate on the inside of turn one, it promised to be the perfect day for Vettel and Ferrari.
The four-time champion barely had the chance to revel in his stunning start before the instruction came down the Ferrari team radio for the German to move aside for the man he had just brilliantly overtaken. From Ferrari’s perspective, Leclerc had more championship points on the board and he is the man they wanted to ensure was leading the field. Vettel was having none of it.
Ferrari had arrived in Sochi after a hat trick of wins, but the Italian team shot themselves in the foot with a strategy that involved Leclerc allowing Vettel, starting in third, to slipstream Leclerc off the start and take the lead into turn two.
The deal was for the German to hand back the place once Ferrari had settled into a one-two formation but Vettel began recording in a series of fastest laps to Leclerc’s consternation.
“Sebastian will let you by next lap,” the 21-year-old was told over the radio on lap four. But Vettel refused to ease off and suggested Leclerc would need to close a gap of 1.3 seconds to make that possible.
Leclerc was already seething after being undone in Singapore by a strategy that worked in Vettel’s favor, with the team radio again crackling with anger as the youngster vented his feelings.
“You put me behind. I respected everything,” he said as it became clear Vettel, winner in Singapore after 13 months off the top of the podium, was clearly faster and had no intention of easing off. “I respected. I gave him the slipstream,” he added later.
Words from the top
In a highly unusual turn of events, Ferrari’s sporting director, Laurent Mekies, got involved, instructing Vettel that he would move aside later in the race. However, that scenario never materialized as Vettel, who pitted at the end of lap 26, soon after Leclerc, suffered engine failure almost immediately.
It was a mysterious and deeply disappointing way for Vettel to retire, his first since Germany 2018, and the resulting virtual safety car effectively gave Hamilton a free pit stop, which he took advantage of and emerged at the front of the pack. Leclerc was suddenly down in third behind Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas, and Ferrari’s day in Sochi had quickly unraveled, at least partially of their own making.
“I don’t know exactly what happened,” said Vettel, when asked about a pre-race agreement he had with teammate Charles Leclerc. “I think we had an agreement. I spoke with Charles especially before the race. It was quite clear. Maybe I missed something?”
“I’m sure we’ll talk about it,” he added with a smile. “It’s bitter for us today because we wanted to have a one-two and it’s not the result we wanted. I don’t want to share the details of our agreement and I don’t want to put the team in a bad light.
“We talked about a strategy to get past Lewis and I had a good start. I was in third and Charles was first – we raced and I think that’s what we did until the pit stop when obviously I lost the lead and then the car broke down.”
The remainder of the race was a routine one for Hamilton. With the security of his Mercedes teammate behind him, the Briton cruised to his ninth victory of the season, and made a significant stride towards winning the world title for a sixth time.
“It’s just incredible to have this result today, considering how quick Ferrari were off the start. Just keeping up with them was an incredibly hard task,” said Hamilton, whose last victory before Sunday was in Hungary in August.
He added: “I try not to think too much about the championship. One race at a time and one step at a time, one foot in front of the other. We don’t want to stumble.”