Are tensions rising within Ferrari after Russia?
For the second time in as many races this season, we saw tempers flare at Ferrari as Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc battled for victory in Sochi, utlimately leading to a retirement from Vettel and Leclerc finishing 3rd. Do the Scuderia have trouble on their hands?
Let's face it, Formula One is no stranger to strong inter-team rivalries. The first driver that you must compare yourself to is your team-mate. It's been made no secret that Sebastian Vettel had been struggling to get on top of the Ferrari in 2019 until his victory at Singapore last week, and it hasn't helped his case that he has arguably the fastest young driver in F1 snapping at his heels in the sister car. Charles Leclerc has given the German plenty to think about so far this season, and even led the four-time world champion by six points prior to today's Russian Grand Prix. It's not quite as bad as 2014 for Vettel, but there's no doubting that the 21-year old Leclerc is more than a match for the once adored Maranello son.
But today's action in Sochi added a new problem for team boss Mattia Binotto to contend with. Charles Leclerc dominated the Belgian Grand Prix, followed by a sensational performance in Monza to hold of both Mercedes' drivers of Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas to claim the Scuderia's first win on home turf for nine years, and cementing his legacy amongst the Tifosi in the process. Vettel had been on the ropes since the Canadian Grand Prix earlier in the season, and he's slowly fallen out of championship contention. That was until until last Sunday evening at Marina Bay Street circuit where the German snapped a 392 day winless streak to score his first win since the 2018 Belgian Grand Prix. But this weeks race in Russia seems to have raised even more tension within the Ferrari camp, as a clear 1-2 was on offer for the dominant red car until a VSC trumped them, allowing Lewis Hamilton to sneak in for victory.
Ttensions are definitely rising.
So where was the race won and lost in Sochi?
In typical Russia style, the start was a slipstreaming affair. Leclerc lead away from the lights, with Hamilton and Vettel side by side through the sweeping turn one until Sebastian dragged up on Leclerc and passed the Monegasque driver into turn two. The Ferrari duo began to slowly pull away from Hamilton in third place, and argued between each other, using the team's strategy department as a middle man to their opinions as to how they should attack the race. Vettel wanted to keep the lead, and Charles wanted to be let back past. Vettel made it very clear that he deserved to be there, and immediately pulled out a four second lead to show his intentions.
Sebastian Vettel's storming opening laps was thwarted after being kept out and losing the lead to his team mate Leclerc before retiring with an MGU-K issue on lap 27.
And this is when we saw the Sebastian Vettel of old. The fire was back for Vettel, and he easily had the measure of his young protege. But it was becoming evidently clear that Ferrari had a pre-race plan that wasn't being adhered to by Sebastian. So Ferrari pitted Leclerc early and left Vettel out to cover for a safety car eventuality, essentially splitting the strategy. But the fresh tires for Leclerc was enough to allow him the ability to regain the lead once Vettel finally made his stop several laps later. The whole radio communication issue was quickly forgotten after Vettel retired after leaving the pits, with the German pulling off at the end of the lap with a very rare MGU-K issue. But the irony of him pulling off was leaving Leclerc vulnerable to the eventual Virtual Safety Car that allowed Hamilton to pit and come out ahead of Leclerc and control the race from there. Ferrari shot themselves in the foot today.
Is there now a rift at Maranello?
Considering the manner in which Leclerc lost the Singapore Grand Prix last Sunday, and then how the race went for him in Sochi today, he handled it extremely well, with professional responses to the media and a great body language. He could've easily have won the last races, and he knows he has Vettel right where he wants him. Sebastian Vettel on the other hand is no stranger to awkwardness and commotion with team mates over the years. He showed displeasure with Mark Webber back in the Red Bull days, and no one needs to be reminded of Turkey 2010 or Malaysia 2013.
While it is a long shot to say that Leclerc and Vettel will have the same rocky relationship that Vettel and Webber endured during Red Bull's dominant years, it is fair to say that Singapore and now Russia would've had a more negative effect on their relationship rather than a positive one. Leclerc would've taken it personally regardless of knowing what was better for the team or not. He will of course understand why Ferrari have done what they did in the previous two races, but he will still feel rather hard done by, and will be seeking instant redemption at Suzuka in a couple weeks time.
Leclerc now leads Vettel by 21 points in the drivers' standings with fives races to go.
So what can we expect from Suzuka in a couple of weeks?
Ferrari have now had the best car at four completely different circuits. With Spa-Francorchamps' high aero efficiency package, Monza's low drag package, and Singapore's traction package, as well as Russia's point and squirt nature, the team in red have managed to nail all types of track since the summer break. So it goes without saying that the team from Maranello will be going to Suzuka in a couple of weeks as favourites. And with Ferrari's clear performance advantage in the engine department, don't be surprised if one of two Ferrari's are on the front row come Saturday afternoon.
The championship isn't over until it's over, and both Vettel and Leclerc are still mathematically in the title hunt, and will be looking to take big points out of Hamilton's sizeable lead right up until the final race in Abu Dhabi. But this will eventually cause a problem within the Ferrari camp, and eventually the team will have to put all their efforts behind one driver to pursue Hamilton in the quest for an unlikely championship upset.
Either way, tensions are rising as we reach the conclusion of this gripping 2019 campaign. Ferrari will be scratching their heads as to where this pace was at the start of the season, but they were too busy fumbling race strategies and having a general lack of pace to the Mercedes cars, even if they showed dominant pace during the pre-season test in Barcelona during the winter months.
But now Ferrari have the car to challenge for victories in the remaining five races, and it should be a fantastic duel to the flag in Abu Dhabi between the top three teams, let alone between Charles and Sebastian within the Ferrari team.
This one isn't over.