THE FERRARI DRIVER SITUATION
A Ferrari-driver divorce spills bitterness everywhere and it's not the first time. So let's dig into the current situation....
As we all know Ferrari dropped Sebastian Vettel before the 2020 season start and replaced him with Carlos Sainz Jr. In fact, the real replacement of the 4-time world champion was his current teammate, Charles Leclerc, a product of Ferrari Driver Academy. This resulted in a lot of bad blood, on and off the track, between Ferrari and Vettel with a whole season in front of them to make it even worse. The current situation has F1 fans divided and using words like "betrayal", "injustice", "sBinalla", "underperforming" and "typical Ferrari" to support their opinion. To find out the truth we have to ask the right questions.
IS FERRARI JUSTIFIED TO FIRE VETTEL?
Well, to answer this we have to revisit 2019 and take a closer look at the battle between Vettel and Leclerc. Their car was SF90, an aerodynamically flawed car whose rear end couldn't produce as much downforce as its front resulting in an over-tilting rear end under braking. This is important because it severely penalised Seb's driving style, who is known to prefer cars with very stable rear end to perform his tricks. That said, let's look at their qualifying head-to-head and racepace stats.
To have an objective qualifying result, first we have to exclude the sessions where one of them had a mechanical issue that prevented him from having a proper lap. These will be Monaco for Charles and Austria, Germany for Seb. The remaining races also need some adjustments as we will give the edge to Charles in Baku because he was untouchable all weekend and crashed in Q2 and the edge in Italy to Seb because Charles didn't give him the slipstream(worth of at least 0.2 sec) in the infamous Monza Q3. In Mexico Seb had to lift in the final sector of his final lap because of a crash while he was on pace to take pole position. Charles had completed his laps at that point so Seb wins Mexico too. Final score: 9-9. As for their racepace, Seb was a bit stronger over the course of a season, something mentioned by both Leclerc and Binotto but, again, it was a small difference explained partly by Seb's massive experience.
It's clear that there was not much between the two. The raw stats suggest that Sebastian and Leclerc had been pretty equal in a year Seb had no confidence in the car for major part of the season but they don't tell the full story. Charles appeared to be able to take, more often than his super star teammate, the maximum out of the car, especially in qualifying, and from France to Russia he was on rampage. The quali gaps to his teammate reached 0,615sec in Silverstone and 0,748sec in Belgium while he clinched 5 of his 7 poles and 2 wins during that period. Ferrari brought some upgrades in Singapore that balanced the car a bit more and Seb had his comeback after Russia winning four consecutive qualifying battles over Charles(Mexico included). Even then, Leclerc was always within 2 tenths or less in qualis and had similar racepace.
Two alphas rarely work well in a team and the Ferrari duo confirmed that many times, most notably in Brazil. Ferrari had to choose one and Leclerc showed them in 2019 that he is a generational talent only 22 years of age with the ability to sqeeze every little bit of performance out of the car, something that Seb couldn't do until Singapore and the upgrades. One can argue about Ferrari not supporting Vettel enough during their time together, that the car was far from his liking, that there wasn't a championship at stakes or even that he didn't lose the battle in 2019 but that doesn't change anything. From Ferrari's standpoint it makes perfect sense, financially speaking too, to secure a young talent like Leclerc and build their future around him even if there were no clouds above the Ferrari-Vettel relationship already at that point. So YES Ferrari was right to choose Leclerc over Vettel just like McLaren was right to choose Hamilton over Alonso in 2007.
BUT IF FERRARI'S DECISION IS JUSTIFIED, THEN WHY ALL THE TENSION?
The whole situation was triggered by the way Ferrari handled the divorce with Sebastian. They announced him their decision very late and blindsided him beforhand by telling the press that he was their first choice during Barcelona testing. According to Vettel there was neither a discussion nor an offer on the table. This compromised his chances of getting a seat for 2020 and it was disrespectful. To make things even worse, it's very likely that Ferrari had started discussions with Sainz during the time of their "first choice" statements. Unfortunately, the problem lies much deeper in their relationship.
The Ferrari-Vettel saga seemed doomed from the start. Luca Di Montizemolo, the man who signed Vettel, left his position as President of Ferrari in 2014 and that meant Vettel was no longer the chosen of the boss. The new leadership was never truly sold on Sebastian and they didn't bother to hide it. Late in 2016, while Vettel was trying to pull a Michael Schumacher and reorganise the team, Ferrari team boss Mauricio Arrivabene reminded him that he should focus solely on driving and that, like anyone working for Ferrari, he has to earn his place and salary. With two sentences Ferrari unsettled their star driver, the one they had built their whole project around and were paying over 30 million per year and put him under immense pressure for no real reason as Ferrari was still nowhere in 2016. That comment set the tone for the next two years.
It was clear at that point that Seb would never have with Ferrari the bond and the trusting enviroment he enjoyed at Red Bull. Scuderia would be proven toxic for the emotional and sensitive Seb. In 2017 he lost his temper in Baku and had an avoidable crash in Singapore with the championship at stakes, although it wasn't necessarily his fault. The remainder of the season showed that even if he had won the race he wouldn't eventually have won the championship but the vibes were still negative.
In 2018 the team made mistakes, Seb made even more and Mercedes was flying in the final third of the season. Nobody can argue that his mistakes weren't costly. Vettel crashed and spinned out of the track in France, Italy, Japan and USA and also received avoidable grid penalties in Austria and USA. He also crashed out of the race in the rain and lost a win in Hoffenheim, an event that, for some reason, felt like the end of the world at the time although it was just the 11th race of the championship. Huge mistake or not, the point difference was only 17 points after that. If that doesn't say something about driving for Scuderia then Monza 2018 should. Ferrari had the front row locked with Kimi on pole. The championship was at stakes as Vettel was only 17 points behind Hamilton and seemed more than capable to win it all. The FCA headquarters were in the paddock as always in their home race, but instead of spending all their time with their drivers encouraging them and discussing the strategy, they spent almost two hours in Alfa Romeo's garage and Charles Leclerc. The message was clear: Kimi was out and Vettel was in doubt. Of course Ferrari never fixed the start ala Russia 2019. As a result Vettel compromised his line behind Kimi before turn 4, Hamilton took the advantage and the rest is history.
Top level athletes put their bodies and minds under a lot of stress and pressure. Most of them are also vastly insecure and want their teams to believe in them in order to perform at their best. They are the best in the world and they want to be treated accordingly. In a sport like Formula 1 where tenths of a second can be the difference between success and failure every little distraction can be crucial. The worst kind of distraction is your own team doubting you. People like Alonso, Hamilton and Schumacher are the exceptions that prove the rule. The 2007 Mclaren duo brought the Apocalypse in the McLaren garage but their on-track performance was unaffected. Michael Schumacher was forced out of Ferrari in mid-2006 but he gave it everything to win the championship until a mechanical failure stopped him in the penultimate race. Not everyone can be like that. In fact almost no one can be like that.
Vettel's carreer reveals that he needs two things to perform at his best. Unconditional love and support from the team and confidence in the car. Red Bull gave him both. They never doubted his abilities, even though he made a lot of mistakes in 2010. Adrian Newey tailored the car on him and he even redesigned the rear of the car to suit his driving style in 2012 after the ban of blown diffusers in late 2011. Red Bull believed they had found their man and built their team around him. In such an enviroment Vettel came up extremely clutch under pressure. His perfomances at the closing stages of the 2010 season showed what he is made of but the biggest chip on his shoulder remains the 2012 Championship win.
In a year that featured six world champions, one future world champion(Nico) and a much more level playing field overall, every point was hard fought. McLaren had the fastest car but they were unreliable, something that costed them both tittles. Hamilton could have 7 wins and many more points if not for mechanical failures, bad luck, crashes and disasterpieces of pit stops. He even had 2 mechanical DNFs while comfortably on the lead and a crash while fighting for the lead in Brazil that wasn't his fault. RB8 was close but more reliable. Ferrari had bulletproof reliability and Alonso behind the wheel who was taking the maximum from the car in every race. He was leading the championship by 40 points with 8 races to go, a very big gap given how competitive the season was, but he was taken out two times by other drivers and the tides turned. Lotus were very competitive almost in every track, great with the tyres and had they been luckier they could have managed even more wins. Kimi finished an amazing 3rd in the standings that year. These were the teams which could challenge for wins and podiums regularly but depending on the race there could be more contenders for the podium places and it's not any surprising that there were 7 different winners in the first 7 races and 8 in total. Mercedes could also have achieved a second win in Monaco had Michael Schumacher not been stripped off his pole because of a penalty. During that royal rumble of a season Seb made almost no mistakes, took every available point and when Redbull had a dominant spell of three races in the final third of the season he secured all of them plus one more in Singapore after a Lewis's DNF. After that he had two mega drives in Abu Dhabi and Brazil to win what can be called the most competitive championship maybe ever. Note here that, while Red Bull had the best car in 2010, and were dominant in 2011 and 2013, they never had an 1-2 finish in the drivers standings during these years like Mercedes has 4 times times after 2013. This suggests that when Seb is given an advantage, even a small one, he goes ballistic. As Gerhard Berger said in 2018, Vettel is like a vampire. When he licks blood and sees victory he does everything to get it.
The fans we have a very short memory, and it's at least unfair to label Vettel a choker, one-trick pony, spin master and many more without taking into account how toxic Ferrari enviroment is or how difficult it can be for certain characters to operate properly in such conditions. His pace was still blistering in 2018 but he couldn't convert it into results like before. In addition, his loss to Ricciardo in 2014 can't be representative of his value as many state. It was a year of new regulations, he was complaining about the car, he signed for Ferrari mid-season and the RB10 wasn't good enough to challenge Lewis and Nico, whatever that can mean for the motivation levels of a man that in 2013 clinched his 4th consecutive World Championship. His teammate was also an up and coming young talent at the time with everything to prove. Does this sound any familiar? Ricciardo was also a match for Max Verstappen during their time together at Redbull. He isn't just another driver, he is a truly great one and there is no shame in losing to him especially with the championship not at stakes. His only weakness is that he maybe can't adapt his driving to a car far from his liking at least not at the level Alonso, Lewis, Max or even Leclerc can. But when he's given a balanced car he is as good as anyone in the history of the sport. Remember that in 2008 he took a dominant win in Monza. With a Torro Rosso. In the rain.
In conclusion, Seb had to fight not only the happy and well-oiled Mercedes team but also his team's internal issues from the beginning. He never complained publicly for the way the team was operating or for not having a competitive ride in 2015 and 2016 and he always tried to motivate the team during that time. He stated many times that it was his childhood dream to win with Ferrari and for 5 years he gave it everything to achieve it. What he got in return was not what he expected. Ferrari never forgave him for his mistakes or admitted that their behaviour could have caused a lot of them. Instead they still seem to hold him accountable for the loss of the 2017 and 2018 championships. Seb seems to have had enough, the team wore him down over the years and the way they chose to fire him was just the final nail in the coffin of an ill-fated relationship.
WAS IT THE FIRST TIME FERRARI BEHAVES LIKE THIS, OR....?
Unfortunatelly not. Here are the most recent examples:
In 1991 Alain Prost, one the best and most mechanically savvy drivers in the history of the sport, said that a truck would be easier to drive than his car. He was fired for that after some races and the team returned to the midfield until 1997. Prost was the first Ferrari driver to really challenge for the championship since 1979, in the previous year.
Michael Schumacher was the main reason for Ferrari's rise to the top of the sport after 31 years. In 1996 he signed for Scuderia and teamed up with Ross Brawn and Jean Todt. Together they ran the team for 11 years leaving the corporate leadership out of the race team during that period. If Ferrari had a problem with one of them, then they had with all of them. They knew what to do and they wanted to be left alone. The result was a complete domination of the sport from 2000 until 2004. The 2007 success and the 2008 constructors championship was also a continuation of what they started in 1996. But in 2006 Luca di Montizemolo decided that this had to stop. He didn't like the power that these three had inside the brand and the fact that they were given all the credits for the team's success. Ross Brawn was pushed to the exit and Ferrari signed Kimi Raikkonen, arguably the fastest driver on the grid at the time, sending a clear message to Schumi that he wasn't about to be the undisputed number one any more, if he chose to stay. All these happened mid-season while Schumi was competing for the championship against Alonso. Schumi was forced to retire although he surely wanted to drive for one or two more years. What a bitter end to such a glorious career.
In 2008 Kimi was the defending champion. He was struggling with the car in many races in 2007 but he managed to figure it out eventually and towards the end he made one of the most incredible comebacks ever winning the championship from a 17 point deficit in the last two races. The next season could only be better for him as he was getting more and more comfortable with his new team, right? No. Ferrari wanted to close a deal with Santander bank as their main sponsor from 2009 onwards. Santander's main condition for the deal was that Fernando Alonso would drive for the team. Having Kimi and Alonso in the same team at their peak would be a recipe for destruction and Kimi had to go. But it would be too weird to replace him after winning the World Championship and it would be even worse to win a second one that year. A despicable media war against Kimi started after Spain, with the team questioning publicly his future and his motivation even by bringing up rumours about retirement. Kimi was leading the championship at the moment....To make things even worse, Ferrari changed his front suspension in Germany without informing him and his performance dropped drastically. He was co-leading the championship at that point and when they gave him back his old suspension in Singapore it was already game over for him. Of course Ferrari knew how crucial it is for Kimi to have the car suiting him and how impactful for him any little change in the car can be. In the next episodes Kimi activated an automatic renewal clause in his contract and the negotiations with Ferrari ended with him leaving the team after 2009 and Ferrari having to pay him 2 full years' salary under the condition that he sit out of the sport for the next 1.5 years.
His second stint was less dramatic. Kimi was 35 years old at the time and he served as a teammate to Alonso in 2014 and Sebastian Vettel right after. He was given the "Ferrari second driver treatment" during these 5 years and the team never really had any interest to find out what works well for him. Kimi is a driver who needs a specific type of car to perform at his best as his ex-teammate Pedro de la Rossa stated in an interview. Mclaren recognised his potential and chose to built their team around him. Newey designed the MP4s to suit his unique driving style and Kimi displayed Senna-like speed at times and superhuman consistensy. Age and alcohol can't be the only reasons he was on average 0,6sec behind Alonso in qualifying and 30sec in races or for similar gaps to Vettel for most of their years together. No one can be that slow just by himself. Kimi never made a big deal of it in public and he always drove anything that was thrown at him although he is a driver much more dependent on his driving style to be exlpoited to perform than Vettel. His reward was to be called a "laggard" by Ferrari boss Sergio Marccione and to be viewed as a washed up driver both by his team and the fans. To make it even worse many questioned if he ever was a top level driver at all. Does this sound familiar now? Kimi was undemanding and Ferrari walked over him, but it would have been no different even if he wasn't.
Felippe Massa maybe isn't on the level of the other drivers on this list but he is a top level driver who could be unbeatable on his day. He almost won a Championship against Lewis Hamilton in 2008 and was very close to Kimi in 2007, although Kimi was new to the team and used to drive a different type of car. After his accident in 2009 he returned for the 2010 campaign but his teammate was now Fernando Alonso. In the second race of the season he was ordered to let Alonso pass while they were both fighting for the podium. Alonso was indeed faster at the moment but not by far. Anyway it was a very weird and rude thing to ask. Massa didn't obey the order and finished 3rd. After the race the team congratulated him on the team radio by saying that he wasn't the faster driver that day. The final blow came in Germany that year. Massa's race engineer at the time, Rob Smedley, stated recently this was the turning point for Massa's carreer because there was no reason at the moment to proceed to such a team order. It came out of nowhere for Felippe and it devastaded him. He also said that Massa had returned in top form after his accident and his only problem was that the team was only focused on Alonso. From the driver's point of view it's completely demoralising to be treated like that by your own team.
IS THERE ANY SIGN THAT FERRARI IS WORKING ON THIS ISSUE?
It depends. Vettel's replacement is Carlos Sainz Jr who currently drives for Mclaren. Ferrari seems to have signed him as a "number 1.5" driver: a very good but not on Leclerc's level driver, who will challenge for wins and podiums without causing friction inside the team. Maybe that's the reason for not signing Ricciardo. Well, if that's true, then it's very likely that it's not going to end up well. The feeling among the fans is also that Carlos is very good but not capable of extreme greatness like Leclerc. A closer look at the stats puts this notion in jeopardy.
Carlos drove alongside Max Verstappen in 2015 and 2016. In 2015 they were pretty equal at the start, but Max seemed the one to be rapidly evolving through the season. He got more points and looked like the better driver late in the season. Sainz's bad luck contributed a lot to that. Max was also three years younger and had massively less experience in single seaters than his teammate. He hadn't even competed in Formula 2. But in 2016, both being an evolved version of their previous selves they appeared to be pretty equal in every statistical category. There was literary nothing between them in qualifying and they performed equally strong in the races. Surely, it was only 4 races before Max left for Red Bull but it's not something to be overlooked. I agree that Max was younger, less experienced and Red Bull had all the data in their hands but to match Max Verstappen's perfomances in the same car, while both in your second year in Formula 1 speaks volumes for your talent, even if it was just for four races.
His next team was Renault where he was paired with Nico Hulkenberg. He was lagging at the start but Renault hadn't assembled his team around him properly yet. When this happened in Spain he stepped up his game and in many cases he outperformed the Hulk even in quallifying. After the summer break it was announced that he was leaving Renault at the end of the season and Ricciardo would be his replacement so this season is not a fair comparison. Nico Hulkenberg is maybe the best driver to never achieve a podium finish in the history of the sport and Carlos at no point seemed to lack performance when he was comfortable in team.
In 2019 Carlos had his best year to date. He emerged victorious from the massacre in the midfield and put the world on notice. Again, he was rusty at the start of the season and he was losing to his rookie teammate Lando Norris in qualifying but once he figured it all out he was box office. He even managed a podium finish in Brazil starting from last.
What transpires is that Carlos Sainz is a slow starter who takes some time to find his rythm and adapt to the car. Once he does that he performs at the highest level as his 2019 season proves. He works hard with his mechanics to solve every issue and find the right balance for him. He even relocated to England to be near the McLaren factory and have a closer collaboration with his mechanics. As he stated in the Neflix's show "Drive To Survive" he believes that he is the best and hardest working driver in Formula 1. This is a true winner's mentallity.
Vettel is an established legend of the sport who can easily become demotivated when out of championship contention. Kimi was old, driving for his own joy and didn't bother to make an issue out of his problems because he knew how Ferrari works. Felippe Massa accepted his fate. But with Carlos Sainz it's very different. He is 24 years old, hungry for success and he has everything to prove. He won't accept a lesser role in the team and he will demand the team's attention to work properly. If not given, he will not stay quiet. I don't believe that Ferrari intends to support him less than Leclerc but they don't seem to believe he can fight for the same piece of track as Leclerc and this can awfully backfire once again.
Ferrari is a desirable destination for any driver. It's the most successful team in the history of the sport and the most iconic brand in automotive. The problem is that they are treating their drivers like they are doing them a favour just by signing them. This isn't the right behaviour under any circumstances but it would be at least understandable if they were the best by far. Unfortunately for them, this is definitely not the case.
Although the brand's road cars remain state of the art creations, adding to the myth of Ferrari, the Formula 1 team seems to be far from from that level. In fact the only time in their recent history when they clearly had the best car on the grid was from 2000 to 2004. That was a product of Schumacher, Brawn, Todt and Byrne dream team who, as mentioned before, didn't let the Ferrari leadership interfere with the team. Before them Ferrari hadn't won a championship since 1979. After Jean Todt, the last of the dream team, left in 2008, Ferrari was never the best car and it is not even debatable. An argument can be made for the 2018 car but there are some question marks here because there were complains about Scuderia's sudden engine power advantage in 2018, under stable rules. In 2019 the gains became even greater and we all know how the story ended after 2019.
That doesn't necessarily mean that the Ferrari engine was illegal or that the other top teams don't stretch the rules all the time. But there was not a single season since 1979 and out of the Schumacher era where the Ferrari's car was dominant or the best without any doubt. Although they challenged for some championships, this is not a good look for the team with the biggest budget on the grid. Even worse, the big budget seems to compensate for the lack of effectiveness the team has. One can argue that any team would be as competitive on a similar budget and if that's the case, then the new budget cap is going to hit them very hard.
Drivers still want to drive for Ferrari no matter what. Some even take on the challenge to bring it back on top when it's not very competitive. It's different to drive for Ferrari but it is not going to last for long under the current conditions. The traditional Ferrari ways have been ineffective in the modern era and it's urgent to at least make the Ferrari environment viable for drivers. It's acceptable for the corporate leadership to get involved in the team if they want. Although it's something very unlikely to bring them success, it's their team after all and they have every right to do it if they believe so. What is unacceptable is to aggressively undermine the efforts of their own team's drivers. In the ordinary world this is described as a bad workplace.
P.S.: Thanks for reading!!!! I tried to be as objective as possible but if you think I got anything wrong I would really like to point it out in the comments.