Scuderia’s Dangerous Driver Dalliance
“Why should we stop? I am happy”
A double disaster at the start was not the kind of rough weather Ferrari were anticipating at the Suzuka circuit. While the Japanese Grand Prix remained in the shadow of doubt with Typhoon Hagibis, Ferrari continued to flirt dangerously with implosion even as Mercedes raced their way to a record sixth constructors’ championship title in succession.
Not since the dearth of competitiveness in Formula 1 racing after the retirement of Michael Schumacher has Ferrari displayed such excitement and intensity. Yet when they look back on 2019, the bosses at the Prancing Horse will know that even with a better car on the anvil, making them far more competitive in the second half of the season, they were undone largely by a lack of authority, clarity and harmony in their own camp.
The pressure is telling on the Scuderia team from Maranello. Driver disharmony, botched strategical moves, indecisive management on the pit wall, these have been the ongoing saga of the Ferrari team, playing nicely into the hands of grateful Mercedes.
It was hard to explain Ferrari’s tactics towards the end of the Japanese Grand Prix. With the qualifying scheduled for the same morning as the race, Ferrari seemed well placed to take the podium. Few lessons were learnt even after a horrendous start for both drivers in individual incidents.
On lap 47 Ferrari made a bizarre call to call LeClerc into the pit stop. While the 21 year old Monégasque driver seemed content to be left out on the racing track, Ferrari thought it better to call him in for a change of tyres with just six laps to go.
Herein lay the problem.
Ferrari should have anticipated an adverse race stewards’ verdict after both their drivers blundered at the start. Vettel managed to escape a possible penalty and the wrath of the stewards after a false start in his grid box. It would have only added insult to injury after Vettel squandered what was a golden opportunity to lead the race from the front. Just one more of the German’s many unforced mistakes.
However, it had become fairly obvious that LeClerc was going to incur some penalty after colliding into Red Bull’s Max Verstappen going into turn 2. Not only had LeClerc made a blunder on the racing track, but Ferrari then colluded with their rookie driver to put other cars and drivers in peril by allowing LeClerc to carry on instead of coming into the pit to get his front wing changed.
Confusion reigned once more over the pit radio with LeClerc claiming that the call asking him to come in was made just as he passed by the pit lane. After initially reporting damage to his car, he then dissuaded Ferrari from calling him in on the very next lap.
“Why should we stop? I am happy,” he radioed back. Ferrari concurred.
It was only following an FIA intervention, after Lewis Hamilton lost a wing mirror and Lando Norris had his race spoilt by debris flying off LeClerc’s car, that Ferrari complied four laps into the race.
Even when Hamilton’s strategy was reportedly in trouble, Ferrari could not take advantage. Ultimately, though LeClerc made up places to finish in sixth place, a ten second penalty for the danger of staying out on track and five seconds for the collision damaged the young driver’s standing as he dropped down one place in the final classification.
The pressure is certainly telling on the two Ferrari drivers who appear to be competing for top place in their own pit garage.
LeClerc’s collision with Verstappen – who deemed the deed ‘irresponsible driving’ – and Vettel’s impatient, premature start on the grid highlight the turmoil, disharmony and confusion that has ailed the Ferrari team all season.
It was a rocky start at the Japanese Grand Prix, and another stormy radio war between the drivers in the course of the Russian Grand Prix.
At Sochi, the young driver followed pre-race orders to give the third-placed Vettel a tow, after having qualified on pole himself. Even as Vettel began to pull away, LeClerc was under the impression that the German would give back the lead. When it became apparent that Vettel had no such intention and a switch was not on the cards, the younger star was fuming all over the radio.
It was every man for himself, as Vettel deliberately ignored orders and took advantage of the tow. Some suggested this was merely a carry on from Vettel who was also the beneficiary of an unusually large undercut time at the Singapore Grand Prix. For others, it was a case of Vettel seeking revenge, the incident at Monza not forgotten when LeClerc had refused to hand the champion the tow, even if the team principal Mattia Binotto later claimed “All is forgiven” after LeClerc gave Ferrari their elusive win in the Italian Grand Prix.
In every instance, the radio has been replete with anguish and protest from both drivers in alternation, and it has been suggested that even Binotto is not a strong enough boss to impose a sense of decorum on the two, one desperate to maintain his fading aura and another eager to push on.
It has been Ferrari’s story this entire season. Although the early races beginning with the Australian Grand Prix saw LeClerc step back in line behind Vettel, he did so while emphasising he was the faster of the two. To his credit, despite his inexperienced foibles which have been a few, LeClerc has outqualified four-time champion Vettel sufficiently enough to suggest that Ferrari have a new champion in the making.
On the other hand, Vettel has been overshadowed by a hungrier Hamilton over the past three seasons. With Mercedes being the better constructor, Vettel’s error count has grown while his aura and ability to pull one back for Ferrari have distanced themselves from him. Although he showed some defiant panache at the Singapore Grand Prix, his attempt to take advantage of his teammate at Sochi came undone when he eventually retired after pitting for fresh tires due to overheating.
Binotto failed in his attempt to put the friction between the two drivers to rest by suggesting this after the Maranello meeting: “We’re getting to know each other and a deepening process. Will it not happen again? I don’t believe it.” He added, “There will be such situations, especially between two drivers so strong and competitive. But it is important that there is transparency between us and the drivers.”
But transparency was not on the cards judging by the drivers’ own take after the meeting.
Not wanting to upset the bosses by appearing to be a rebel perhaps, LeClerc was a contrast to his animated radio reports when he claimed, “What is clear is that the situation wasn’t clear for both drivers starting the race. But what’s important is that we spoke about it and we’ll make sure this situation doesn’t happen again in the future.”
Lewis Hamilton has played a bit of a rabble-rouser this season, whether it was calling out Vettel’s late move on him at the Canadian Grand Prix which cost the German counterpart top honours or when he appeared to tease about the troubles at the Ferrari camp.
Weighing in on the battle for supremacy in the muddled Ferrari pit, Hamilton stated, “It is an interesting dynamic they have there, because obviously Seb was number one, and he’s now clearly not. From the energy from the outlook, Ferrari is trying to ramp Charles up to be (number one). Is it good for a team? I don’t think so.”
One wonders if Hamilton is more worried about a freewheeling, eager, hungry LeClerc being given free rein as the future Ferrari numero uno, given the blunders that Vettel has committed over the past two years in his desperation to stay competitive with the Mercedes driver.
Time for Teamwork
Ferrari have a competitive car. They have proved it. They have an enterprising young driver already making his mark in just his second season. LeClerc has proved it. The time of a single champion has come and gone. Vettel has proved it, despite his rare spectacular wins this season.
Ferrari could gain much from clarity, authority and decisive strategy inside a stronger pit garage. Binotto’s ambiguous words post mortem have proved it time and time again.
If more evidence was needed that the Maranello meeting between races was more mandatory protocol than a useful brainstorming exercise, Vettel’s words refute the notion of harmony between drivers or clarity in the camp. “I got the message to change the place and I did not do it and that was certainly not right,” he admitted after the Russian Grand Prix was done and dusted, as was the Maranello exercise.
The words that followed sounded alarm bells. “Generally everything is clear. Of course you talk to each other. There was a conversation, but there were also other conversations. I wouldn’t make such a fuss around the whole story.”
Ferrari should make a fuss. The Russian Grand Prix turned fiasco before turning farce, as the team’s attempts to dissuade Vettel from ignoring orders fell on deaf ears. Thereafter their attempt to bridge the gap on the racing track compromised Ferrari strategy. Ultimately the result didn’t serve either driver well.
Before the Japanese Grand Prix, Mercedes needed fourteen points over Ferrari to clinch the constructors’ championship, with four races left in the season. They got their points in the end, but not without a little help from the belligerent Ferrari drivers imploding at the start.