Time for Ferrari to make the inevitable call
After a few wins on the spin for whizz kid Charles Leclerc in Belgium and Monza last month, it all looked plain sailing at Ferrari for the first time in 2019.
But drama is never far away in Maranello, and the prancing horse is now seemingly at odds once again – this time over its driver statuses.
Long story short, following Leclerc’s back-to-back triumphs, team-mate Sebastian Vettel has watched on and cut a frustrated figure as the youngster has flourished all year. Winless and error prone, the German has appeared a far cry from the driver that clinched four consecutive titles so relentlessly in the first half of the decade.
That was until Singapore 10 days ago, where he beat Leclerc to victory after an inconspicuous undercut allowed him to leapfrog his in-form counterpart and take his first win of the season. Leclerc made no secret of his outrage as the man on pole then, or again on Sunday in Russia, as Vettel once again benefitted somewhat controversially in a bid to beat his junior.
This time, it appeared as though Leclerc would help pull the German to the front of the grid from third position off the start, allowing him to use the slipstream to full effect to outmaneuver Lewis Hamilton and make it a 1-2 by the end of the first sector.
That tactic worked a treat, and all that remained to be done was for Vettel to hand the race lead back to Leclerc once the Ferrari’s had opened up the gap on Hamilton and the team were in the ascendency. The plan was simple: pull Vettel up the order, and he’ll give the lead back at the appropriate time.
Except Vettel didn’t, to the frustration of Leclerc and his side of the red garages. The senior driver put his foot down, in an attempt to pull away – seemingly ignoring team orders. His argument? That he would have pipped Leclerc at the start regardless of the strategy.
Eventually, it came to little as Vettel retired and Mercedes had the race pace to beat Leclerc to victory. But tensions within Ferrari have now certainly heightened. Who is number one? And how do you let a four-time champion and arguably the best young talent in the sport co-exist in the same team?
Frankly, the situation is a bit of an unknown to Ferrari, who’ve often hired ‘back-up’ options to their main men over the years. For every Michael Schumacher, Fernando Alonso and Vettel, there’s been a Rubens Barrichello, Mika Salo, Felipe Massa and – later – Kimi Räikkönen to back the team cause.
They are now faced with a decision, of which surely there can only be one outcome.
At 21, having won F2 and F3 titles, broken into F1 and secured a move to the most iconic constructor in the sport in the last three years, it has to be the prodigy Leclerc who is backed in that team. A whole 10 years at Ferrari awaits, and he’ll still be younger than Vettel is now.
That kind of time with this talent cannot be wasted, especially to keep the peace with a former champion who has, in truth, been out of sorts for several seasons now. It’s a ruthless stance to take, but the necessary one.
Vettel’s former boss, Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko, thought as much when commenting on the Sochi debacle himself.
“It will be interesting to see what happens. There is a damn fast and reluctant kid standing in line,” he said.
“Both Vettel and Leclerc are still very respectful to each other at the moment, but in the end this balance will break. Although he was the fastest man in Russia, Ferrari sacrificed Sebastian. He has no future at Ferrari anymore."
No drivers’ titles for 12 years, no constructors’ crown for 11. This is one decision the Italian outfit can’t afford to ponder. Back Leclerc and end more than a decade of near misses and disappointment?