Ferrari win streak ends after team order controversy at Russian GP
Confusion over team orders, and an engine failure effectively hands Mercedes the win: Not a good day for Ferrari...
By Matt Morlidge
Last Updated: 29/09/19 8:52pm
Ferrari came crashing back down to earth at the Russian GP as their F1 2019 winning run was ended - with Sebastian Vettel forced to retire and Charles Leclerc finishing third after team strategy controversy.
Vettel played down the incident at the start of the race when he refused to swap positions with Leclerc, but said he thought the "agreement" was "quite clear", while Leclerc admitted he "needed to speak to the team".
Team boss Mattia Binotto, meanwhile, told Sky F1 that "ideally" Leclerc would have been given the lead back but that Vettel was "very fast" and so all orders should have been postponed - while he also denied that Ferrari deliberately changed the positions with a Leclerc undercut later in the race.
Where did it all go wrong?
The Scuderia looked in a good position to add to their three-race streak after Vettel passed Lewis Hamilton and the pole-sitting Leclerc at the start, making it a Ferrari one-two, but there was early discontent as Leclerc expected to be let back ahead of his team-mate after giving him the slipstream by moving to the left.
Ferrari issued team orders to instruct Vettel to swap positions with Leclerc but the defiant German, pulling away out in front, refused.
"I find it very strange that Sebastian was told to give the position back," said Sky F1's Jenson Button. "I think they've over-thought it personally because it looks like he just got a great tow [at the start]."
The two drivers did effectively swap positions after that as Leclerc, who stopped first, undercut Vettel as Ferrari kept the race leader out longer. But soon after his pit-stop, the four-time world champion pulled over with an engine problem.
That led to a Virtual Safety Car, which allowed Mercedes to take a 'free' first pit-stop - both their drivers started on the more durable medium tyres - and Hamilton then took the lead, which he never relinquished.
Mercedes technical director James Allison described the circumstances - Vettel's failure giving Mercedes the lead - as "deliciously ironic".
Leclerc dropped back to third after pitting for fresh soft tyres following a Safety Car, but couldn't get past Valtteri Bottas.
What did Ferrari say?
"I don't know exactly what happened there, to be honest. I think we had an agreement and I spoke with Charles before the race. I think it was quite clear. But yeah... I don't know. Maybe I missed something. I'm sure we'll talk about it. It's bitter today because we wanted to finish one and two, and now Charles is third. Not the result that we want."
Asked what that 'agreement' was, Vettel added: "I don't want to share. I don't want to put the team in a bad position afterwards because somebody said something here and there. I know it's not fair because I think people deserve to know, it's not a big deal. I was in third, Charles was in first, and we were talking about a strategy to get past Lewis. Obviously I had a very good start and then there were a couple of options on the table."
But why couldn't Leclerc and Vettel just race without any team interruptions?
"I think that's what we did until the pit-stop," said Vettel. "Because obviously I lost the lead during the stop and then the car broke down."
"I will always trust the team but the tactic was me giving the slipstream to be one-two at the end of the straight, which happened but then... I don't know. I need to speak to the team to know the situation better."
He later insisted to Sky F1 that there were no issues.
"We'll try to speak now," he explained. "I think everything has been respected in a way because I gave the slipstream then we had to do the swap back which we did at the pit-stop. That's it.
"For sure [Seb] did a great start, but the start performance themselves were exactly the same. Then I just stayed on the left to give him the slipstream. There are no big deals and I think in the end everyone respected their own things."
"Ideally, Charles would have given the slipstream at the start to Seb to make sure that we would have been first and second at the first lap, and this would have given us the best position to control and manage the race, which was happening to the point of unreliability.
"By the time he would have given the slipstream and Sebastian would have had that kind of advantage, ideally we would have swapped back. But Seb was very fast in the race. So I think every decision could have been postponed.
"Initially, we asked them to swap but that was not the case because Charles was not sufficiently close to him."
It appears that both drivers felt they were in the right - Leclerc because he moved to the left of the track to help Vettel, and Vettel because he got such a good start that he might have passed his team-mate regardless.
"Sebastian got such a good start that he overtook Hamilton very soon, even before Turn 1," said Binotto. "In his mind, which is probably right, it wasn't Charles giving him the slipstream - he took the slipstream because he was in that position.
"If Charles went to the right he would have given the slipstream to Hamilton. If we weren't one and two at the end of the first lap it would have been worse."
Asked why Ferrari undercut Vettel with Leclerc, the team principal added: "That was not the situation. We did not do that for the purpose of the undercut, there was always time to swap later on.
"We knew that in the situation of the Safety Car we would have been vulnerable, and so keeping Seb ahead and on track that was the best situation. We just called him when the tyres were too old and that was the best time to do it."
How it played out on team radio
LAP 6 FERRARI TO LECLERC: "Sebastian will let you by, next lap."
VETTEL: "I would have passed him anyway. Let's break away for another two laps, let me know."
LAP 7 FERRARI TO VETTEL: "Let Charles by."
VETTEL: "He will have to close up."
LECLERC: "You put me behind, I respected everything. We'll speak later. But now it is difficult to close the gap obviously."
LAP 8 FERRARI TO VETTEL: "He's trying to close the gap. Let him by, he is 1.4s behind."
LAP 9 FERRARI TO VETTEL: "We are looking to Plan C, Charles 1.9s behind. You are the fastest car on track, head down, you are doing well."
LAP 10 FERRARI TO LECLERC: "Charles, we will do the swap a bit later on, Lewis is a bit close and we want to push now, just focus on your race."
LAP 10 LECLERC: "I completely understand. I gave you the slipstream, no problems, but then I tried to push at the beginning of the race. But... no problems. Manage the situation. "