Despite Lewis Hamilton leading Mercedes to a one-two victory, the Russian Grand Prix was a validating weekend for Ferrari, Charles Leclerc’s dominant pole verifying updates to the SF90 were curing the aerodynamic problems that left it unable to fight for the championship.
But no sooner was one problem fixed than another had emerged. Equipped with race-winning machinery, the simmering rivalry between Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel finally began boiling over.
Though Leclerc started on pole, Vettel’s third-place grid spot was the place to be at lights-out. The run to the first braking zone is almost 900 metres, and the German tucked into his teammate’s slipstream to slingshot past second-placed Hamilton and comfortably into the lead.
It had all been part of Ferrari’s plan. It knew it had the car to beat Mercedes, so it had brokered an agreement for Leclerc to draft Vettel off the line. Once the red cars were in one-two formation, Vettel would let Leclerc back into the lead.
That was the plan anyway.
The call came on lap six, but Vettel rebuffed. “I would have got him anyway,” he said, protesting that the pre-race agreement was void. “Let’s break away [from Mercedes] for another two laps and let me know.”
But the team wasn’t buying it, and he was called several more times to comply. The reply came for Leclerc to catch up to him, but all the while he pressed on, knowing that following closely in his dirty air around the semi-street circuit would be difficult.
Perhaps alive to the public perception that the pit wall had lost control of its driver and otherwise apparently powerless, sporting director Laurent Mekies intervened and ordered his drivers to hold station.
Leclerc, having had victory in Singapore snatched from him by a strategy that put Vettel on the top step, recorded his disappointment.
“You put me behind,” he said. “I respected everything.
“I gave him the slipstream no problems. Then I tried to push at the beginning of the race. No problem. Manage the situation.”
With a mutiny on its hands, Ferrari resorted to pit strategy. It brought Leclerc in on lap 22 for fresh rubber, and though Vettel complained his tyres were also worn, he was left out until lap 26, by which time the Monegasque had made up enough time to stay ahead when the German exited pit lane.
The team later denied this was deliberate, but it didn’t matter in the end anyway - a power unit failure forced Vettel to retire on-track shortly after his stop, and with the virtual safety car deployed Hamilton was able to make his sole pit stop from the lead without losing position. Ferrari had stumbled to another defeat.
The loss was bitter, but more troubling was Vettel’s apparent act of insubordination. That the matter didn’t come to a head on track due to a technical failure surely only delayed the internal confrontation required to settle the volatile power dynamics inside the team.
“We need to trust each other, Seb and myself,” Leclerc said afterwards. “it’s usually important for the benefit of the team in some situations to know that you can count on the other car and vice versa.
“Yes, the trust is still here.”
Ferrari knew when it signed Leclerc it was risking pitting two alpha drivers against each other for leadership of the team, but few expected the 32-year-old Vettel to have his throne threatened so quickly by the 21-year-old in his sophomore F1 season.
How the Scuderia resolves the struggle between its present and its future is anyone’s guess, but a lasting resolution will be critical if Ferrari is to contend for a title in 2020.