For the second week running, a fairly dull race has been dominated by questions of Ferrari team orders, strategy and driver management.
While in Singapore Ferrari played a good team game, turning a potential 1-4 finish into their first 1-2 finish for over two years, in Russia things were a lot more complicated. And the outcome – in both the race and within the team – was much worse.
It was, of course, a significant win for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes in Sochi. Before this they had won only two in seven and were in danger of going four races without a win for the first time in the turbo-hybrid era. Ferrari were resurgent.
Mercedes owed the nature of their victory to a good slice of fortune but Hamilton – and the strategists this time – did not put a foot wrong.
The end result stops Mercedes’ recent slump and further entrenches their position at the top of both championships. But the biggest talking point in an uneventful race on-track were of Ferrari’s driver management (again).
Ferrari’s unnecessary plan causes trouble
After another impressive display in qualifying, particularly from Charles Leclerc, Ferrari lined up 1-3 on the grid, with Hamilton between them. In order to stop second-placed man Hamilton slipstreaming Leclerc, Ferrari – and apparently their drivers – came up with a plan for the start of the race. Leclerc was to give a slipstream to Vettel to keep him ahead of Hamilton. This would help Ferrari into first and second, giving them control of the race strategically, making a fourth consecutive victory much more likely, if not exactly a formality.
At first, the plan worked perfectly. Vettel got a lightning start and within 100 metres or so had already passed Hamilton for second place. But in some ways his start was too good.
Then he tucked into the slipstream of Leclerc ahead as they went around the flat-out turn one. This gave Vettel a huge advantage, as he got ever closer to his team-mate, with still a lengthy run to the first heavy braking zone at turn two.
Before long he’s up to the back of Leclerc and looks to move out to the right and pass him, taking the inside line before turn three. He does this easily. The move was done before even the braking zone.
Leclerc, though, doesn’t fight his
But then the problems started. In line with the plan, Leclerc expected Vettel to be asked to move over and surrender the lead. But Vettel’s pace was better than Leclerc’s and his lead was nearly 1.3 seconds at the end of lap two. He refused to budge.
Ferrari then had to placate their young driver for the second race running. On lap five Leclerc was told that Vettel would let him by next time round. Again, Vettel didn’t play ball, saying that Leclerc needed to close up.
The German was reluctant in the extreme to stick to a plan where he surrenders the lead, whatever was agreed beforehand. This seems a bit strange given he wouldn’t have even had the lead without Leclerc giving him the room in the first place. But you can make the counter argument that after getting ahead Vettel was the quicker driver and was right, in practice, to refuse the order.
The window to swap the cars was slim as Hamilton was only 1.6 seconds behind Leclerc. A clumsy orchestrated move would potentially allow Hamilton to close up and maybe undo Ferrari’s perfect start. Leclerc grew frustrated as he was told to close up.
With Vettel not obeying orders (rightly or wrongly), Ferrari (rightly or wrongly) used both drivers’ strategy to do the required (or agreed) switch. They stopped Leclerc first, put him onto fresh rubber and then let Vettel hang out to dry on his used soft tyres, lapping between one and two seconds a lap slower than Leclerc. Vettel then found himself behind after stopping. Ferrari had righted their wrong and got what they wanted. Briefly.
It soon unravelled. Vettel retired on lap 27 and the Virtual Safety Car was deployed. This was perfect for Mercedes as it “neutralised” the race. With neither of their drivers yet to pit they could now change for fresh tyres, losing only 15 seconds instead of 25, and Hamilton would jump Leclerc and be on fresher and quicker tyres.
With another Ferrari failure, victory had fallen into Hamilton’s hands. Ferrari tried to put Leclerc on softs to help a late charge from third but he didn’t have the pace to pass Bottas. A likely win and potential 1-2 for Ferrari had turned into a single third place. It was early-season Ferrari all over again.
There was a chance that Hamilton could have won this race anyway with Bottas being used as a rear gunner but that was far from certain. It was shaping up to be a thrilling and tempestuous finale, but the VSC coming at the wrong time robbed us of a fine finish.
Ferrari should have seen this coming
Whatever the drivers and teams agreed, the need to have a plan like this was questionable at best. They were rightly worried about a Mercedes disrupting their plans but the way they went about this was always likely to lead to problems.
The plan was unnecessary and what transpired at the start could have happened anyway. In fact, you could even say it was likely. Leclerc pointed out after qualifying that starting on pole in Russia isn’t the best place to be for this very reason.
You need not look too far into the past for evidence. In 2017 Valtteri Bottas started third, on the clean side of the track, overtook second-placed Kimi Raikkonen and then drafted Vettel, taking the lead before they entered the braking zone into turn two; just as Vettel did this year.
Indeed, it nearly happened last year as well but Hamilton deliberately disrupted third-placed man Vettel into turn two, moving him out of the slipstream and helping Bottas keep the lead. Ferrari, really, should have just let it play out naturally and worry about the consequences after. Doing it this way created more problems in the race and has damaged the driver and team relationship for both men, even if the intentions were sound.
Vettel says he stuck to the agreement. Leclerc obviously feels not. Team principal Mattia Binotto said neither driver violated the pre-race agreement. Then why tell Vettel to move over? Clearly, somebody is not telling the whole truth. It could have been worse, though. Vettel’s retirement at least lessened the potential for a full-blown in-race crisis.
Managing Vettel and Leclerc looks a growing problem
Where do Ferrari go from here? On raw pace they are in good shape and their race pace was decent in Sochi, to match their jump in raw pace. But as their performance has increased, so has the tension between Leclerc and Vettel.
As happened earlier in the season, when you have two drivers vying for the same piece of track and you order them to do one thing or another it creates problems for everyone. In Australia and China, though, Ferrari were fighting for fourth and fifth, now they are going for wins. That heightens the tension. Add in the context of a man who represents Ferrari’s future (and arguably present) hopes and one who is trying to restore a damaged reputation and is falling behind the new man. It makes for a fascinating battle.