SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 3 OCTOBER, 2019
Ferrari Undercut LeClerc and Themselves with Vettel Move
“I think there are two alphas competing for position”
Ferrari have battled consistency, balance and position, on the track and off of it. That became evident once more when Ferrari played a poor ploy which undercut their own best driver this season, and raised the risk of dangerous, polarising, possibly self-destructive discord in the pit garage.
The night race at the Singapore Grand Prix was almost meandering to a sedate tune, coming alive only after the twentieth lap when Ferrari’s conundrums became manifold. In the end their complicated decision-making compromised their lead driver for the race, Charles LeClerc, and exposed them to the charge of playing to sentiment even at the cost of their own momentum.
‘Undercut’ became the buzzword by the time the Singapore Grand Prix had ended, in somewhat anti-climactic fashion, for the race itself, for 21 year old LeClerc, and for the many passionate Scuderia Ferrari fans who were watching aghast.
Having qualified on pole and led the race for nearly a third of it, LeClerc was turned on his head as Ferrari made a misstep that sent them into a tail spin.
On paper, Ferrari scored massively. From losing out to blundering strategies, confusing decisions not unlike the one at the Singapore Grand Prix, and a painstaking wait time as LeClerc adjusted himself to the SF90 car as well as to the Ferrari environs, Ferrari scored their first 1-2 podium finish since Hungary 2017.
Incidentally, it was also the first time that a team had scored a 1-2 podium finish at the Singapore Grand Prix.
On closer examination, however, it was Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto who had unconvincingly to explain why Ferrari chose to give the advantage to Sebastian Vettel, and not LeClerc who was leading from the front.
Ferrari claimed that Vettel, who began the race in third position, had to be protected with the potential for Red Bull’s Max Verstappen coming into the pits. To that end, Ferrari deviated from the norm where normally the lead driver is given the option to pit first, with the first advantage of fresh tyres and clean air.
Even if we are to take them at their word, the fact remained that the seeds for this dramatic sequence of events were sown a couple of laps before Vettel pitted in the nineteenth lap. As LeClerc asked repeatedly to be pitted, and struggled to pull away from Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton who himself was looking to push and pit, LeClerc found his lead withering away with every lap.
Ferrari had kept him in the dark about the decision to pit the senior driver first. To LeClerc’s chagrin, although Vettel pitted about six seconds longer in stationary position, the advantage of pitting first allowed him the undercut, wherein he gained 3.5 seconds over the young driver in just the one lap after he left the pits.
Although LeClerc was brought in on the twentieth lap behind Vettel, the damage was done and Vettel began to pull away. It was not just Ferrari’s blunder. Mercedes did not heed the call from Hamilton and were likewise left to pick up the pieces.
By the two-thirds mark, LeClerc was spinning his wheels behind the safety car, questioning agitatedly the logic of Ferrari in letting Vettel pit first, and then not making the call to Vettel to ask him to let LeClerc take back the lead.
LeClerc seemed to be in the midst of a storm as the radio transcript reveals in his conversation with Laurent Mekies:
LeClerc: “To be completely honest with you, I don’t understand at all the undercut. But whatsoever I will discuss after the race anyway.”
Mekies: “Charles, it was the best thing we could do. Head down, the race is long. Let’s concentrate on the safety car. You are doing a super job. Watch your tyres and head down.”
LeClerc: “Yeah my head is down until the race. But I just want to let you know my feeling.”
Mekies: “Yeah, it’s all good, Charles. You will understand after the race.”
LeClerc: “Then we can fight, right?”
Mekies: “Don’t risk anything. You can attack, but don’t risk anything.”
The significance of this conversation was not lost, nor the possible double meaning. LeClerc appeared hotheaded, putting everything on the line to claim what was rightfully his spot.
The brief summer break made a few things abundantly clear.
The young Monagasque had bid early in the season that he was the man to beat. Although he tried to follow team orders, it became apparent that Ferrari’s strategies (such as in China) were costing LeClerc his pace, stuck behind a world champion who could not find his rhythm.
Prior to the Singapore Grand Prix, Vettel had not won a race in over 392 days. Twenty-two races since he stood on the top of the podium, the struggles of the former world champion were becoming a concern in the Ferrari camp, to the point where it appeared that the German might not close out his contract which runs through to the end of 2020.
Denied a win at the Canadian Grand Prix by some shrewd exhortation on the part of Hamilton to probe the race, Vettel needed a win badly to get his head in the game. With a car that was performing visibly better since the break, and LeClerc having changed gears to go even further to out-lead his team mate, Ferrari needed Vettel to stay in contention.
But LeClerc was playing the bigger game. In an indication of the clever, mature head on his shoulders, he waited to adapt to the car before suggesting changes that elevated his race post the break.
So he took his first Grand Prix win in Belgium, in the shadow of the death of Antoine Hubert, his friend, on the track the day before. Rightly he dedicated the win to him.
But it was at Monza that he convincingly won the hearts of the tifosi, with his Italian and his gutsy race to keep Hamilton at bay.
At the home of the Scuderia Ferrari —where although behind doors tempers flared as LeClerc failed to reciprocate Vettel’s tow in the qualifying race— come race time Vettel was spinning himself out once more, while LeClerc played block tactics to aggravate the many-time world champion in the Mercedes car no end.
That grittiness not only put LeClerc in the lead in the minds of Ferrari aficionados and racing fans the world over, but also gave Ferrari their first win in a home race since 2010.
The seven year spell was broken, and LeClerc was brilliantly poised for a hattrick of top podium finishes with a pole position— even if Singapore has not always comforted Ferrari.
It then seemed that instead of rewarding their lead driver who had edged closer to Hamilton’s risqué play for points than Vettel’s befuddled races, Ferrari undercut themselves and sold LeClerc short. At a time when they could have really pushed for a new champion to create a healthy competition in the pit garage and reward the crew, the seeds of dissension continued to be sown.
The need to keep the egos even, and yet favour the past champion, was playing on minds.
Binotto talked about it candidly. “Did we consider swapping? Yes, we did. We thought at that stage at least that it was the right choice not to do it.”
He added, “Now we are still discussing with our two drivers, was that the right choice or not? It’s something on which internally which we may still have a different option or discuss. But yes, we thought about it and we didn’t.”
One of the reasons why Michael Schumacher stayed at the top at Ferrari was because Eddie Irvine was happy to play second fiddle. Mercedes had problems when Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were contending for top billing, and also with Fernando Alonso. There has been tension on and off between Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton, but nowhere on the scale as we have witnessed between Vettel and LeClerc all season.
Despite accepting that Vettel had precedence, due to his association with Ferrari and his record as four-time world champion, LeClerc has increasingly refused to play subservient. To many, he is well within his rights, when he knows he can pull more for the team by taking the lead.
The case of two feuding parties benefitting the third was pointed out, strangely enough, by the rival’s camp. Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff made some poignant comments to observe that Ferrari could plot their own downfall, allowing Mercedes to extend to their lead in the drivers championship.
“I think there are two alphas competing for position, which has the potential for rivalry and escalation. On the positives, they keep taking points away from each other, which is an advantage,” Wolff said.
While the drivers’ championship may be Hamilton’s hold, a close finish could set things up nicely in the latter half of this season and going into what promises to be another busy year for Formula 1 racing.
The gravity of the two decisions in the Ferrari pit garage was not lost in drivers’ circles. David Coulthard, former driver and now commentator, twice asked Vettel pointedly at race’s end whether the decision to pit first had been made at his behest. For all his exasperation over the radio, LeClerc showed deference, and toed the team line, that finishing 1-2 was the most important thing.
His demeanour and body language though told the story.
“Did you lose?” Vettel asked LeClerc after the race when the drivers weighed in.
Strange choice of words. Vettel was apparently asking about the weight loss after such an attritional race. But it was also interpreted as the world champion throwing shade at the young man.
Was Vettel being petty after the now redundant qualifying in Monza? And more importantly, did Ferrari just rob Peter to pay Paul?