Ferrari must manage driver situation carefully and swiftly
Formula 1 rarely goes a week without creating drama, and once again, Ferrari put themselves in the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
Ferrari have been trying and failing to take the world championship crown away from Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes for the last three seasons, and yet, they have pulled up short every time.
This year, with a car that looked the fastest in pre-season, the Maranello based team repeatedly tripped themselves over with strategy mistakes, as well as the odd driver management problem with Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc both disobeying team orders at various points throughout the year.
Up until the Brazilian Grand Prix, driver issues could be contained relatively swiftly by Team Principal, Mattia Binotto, but after his drivers took each other out during last weekend’s race, he could find that the accident brings up a whole world of challenges as he looks to get Ferrari in a position to fight for the title next year.
Having two drivers of the calibre of Vettel and Leclerc is a “luxury” according to Binotto, who stated after the race that he still felt that was the case, but in the same breath he caused their actions “silly”.
In all reality, there was no need for either Ferrari to make contact in the closing stages of the race. Leclerc had put a neat move on Vettel coming out of Turn 1, and with the pair side-by-side going down the back straight, they collided.
It wasn’t a huge impact, but it was enough to damage both cars so badly that they were unable to continue, and whilst neither driver is taking the blame, it is clear that if it should lie at anyone’s door, it should be Vettel’s.
On board replays show that Vettel was veering ever so slightly left, presumably in a bid to pin Leclerc off-line when it came to the following corner at Turn 4, but Leclerc never saw it coming and maintained his position, and why wouldn’t he? There was still at least another 100 metres to go before the corner so there was no need for Leclerc to go ultra defensive.
The incident once again highlighted Vettel’s weakness – wheel to wheel battles.
During the early stages of Vettel’s career, many argued he couldn’t overtake, and that he only won his four titles because he always led from the front. The 32-year-old did go some way to putting that theory to bed, but in recent years, especially the last couple, that has reared its head once again.
Too many times, Vettel has caused a collision, or taken himself out of race contention after a botched overtake. Think Turkey 2010, Monza and France last year, all races in which Vettel compromised himself.
Vettel has always been good at fighting from the front, and it’s not to say he can’t overtake, but he is prone to making mistakes in the heat of a battle, more than would be expected of a four-time world champion.
But, colliding with your team-mate takes the issue to a whole new level and it isn’t the first time Vettel has been involved in this situation, having crashed with his then Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber at Turkey.
Vettel has always struggled to cope when he isn’t the clear number one and it is starting to show once again.
At Red Bull, Vettel was driving brilliantly when he had the edge over Webber, but as soon as Daniel Ricciardo stepped in to the fold and gave Vettel a much harder time than his predecessor, Vettel struggled, and ended up being outshone by his less experienced team-mate.
At Ferrari, he has made mistakes, but up until this season he has been the clear number one, out-racing Kimi Raikkonen repeatedly, but Leclerc, being a feisty 21-year-old in search of his maiden championship, has proven that he has what it takes to beat Vettel and potentially lead the team.
Leclerc won’t back down, as has been proved on multiple occasions this year, and so Vettel needs to show him who is the boss on the track, but by making contact in Brazil, Vettel has shot himself in the foot.
Ferrari has refused to blame either driver, and they will probably maintain that stance, but behind closed doors they will know that it was Vettel who was at fault, and a lot of man management will need to take place to avoid infuriating both drivers and making matters worse.
If Binotto is incapable of getting on top of the situation, and fast, then this could boil over into next season, and potentially throw away yet another opportunity to win a world championship.
This is new territory for Ferrari and it will be interesting to see what they handle the driver conflict. Historically, the Scuderia have always had a favoured driver, a clear number one who they can pin their hopes on to win the championship, and the second driver will always act as the rear gunner.
Think back to Michael Schumacher and Eddie Irvine, Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and more recently, Vettel and Raikkonen. On all of these occasions, the more successful driver was the one who would lead the team and would be the one expected to win the title.
But now Ferrari have a very different situation, for in Leclerc they have a driver who has the potential to lead now, and at the age of 21, he has years ahead of him to win plenty of titles.
Naively, Ferrari expected Leclerc to play second fiddle to Vettel and the team were very vocal about this at the start of the year, but the Monegasque driver swiftly stamped his authority on the team, and has won more races than Vettel in 2019 whilst also sitting 19 points ahead of him in the driver’s standings.
Publicly, Binotto has maintained his position that this is the best line-up for the team and if he truly believes that to be the case, it will take some very careful handling to ensure these two drivers know how to avoid causing further incidents in the future, and putting Ferrari in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
If he can’t manage his drivers over the course of next season, not only could it make their driver line-up untenable, it could also bring Binotto’s position in to question, for when things go wrong at Ferrari, heads tend to roll relatively swiftly.