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Sport Ferrari in disarray as tensions boil over

04:45  30 september  2019
04:45  30 september  2019 Source:   wwos.nine.com.au

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a pile of luggage sitting on top of a truck: Sebastian Vettel leads Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc during the Russian Grand Prix.© AP Sebastian Vettel leads Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc during the Russian Grand Prix. Less than a week ago Mercedes boss Toto Wolff warned that the situation between warring Ferrari teammates Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc could become toxic. He could hardly have guessed that the situation would come to a head so quickly and so publicly.

The opening laps of the Russian Grand Prix in Sochi were marked by a series of radio messages between the Ferrari pitwall and their two drivers, with a defiant Vettel appearing to refuse to follow team orders.

Leclerc commented after qualifying that pole position perhaps wasn't the best place to start, given the long run down to the first breaking point, and so it proved, with Vettel getting ahead of second placed Lewis Hamilton and then making use of the slipstream to pass Leclerc.

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But it was quickly clear that Leclerc believed a pre-race agreement was in place whereby Vettel would cede his position and allow his younger teammate to re-take the lead.

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As early as lap five Leclerc was told by the Ferrari team that "he (Vettel) will let you by on the next lap."

Daniel Ricciardo found himself caught in a three-car collision which wrecked his Russian GP on the first lap. Daniel Ricciardo found himself caught in a three-car collision which wrecked his Russian GP on the first lap.

But Vettel was digging his heels in, appearing to claim that he would have passed Leclerc on the opening lap regardless of the slipstream.

"I would have got him anyway," Vettel told the team.

"Let's break away (from Hamilton in third) for another two laps and let me know."

When Vettel was told on lap 7 to "let Charles by," the four-time champion responded with a blunt: "tell him to close up."

By the next lap Leclerc's frustration was evident. "You put me behind. I respected everything. We will speak later, but now is difficult to close the gap obviously."

Leclerc was told on lap 10 that Hamilton was too close for the drivers to swap positions, and although the team denied it after the race, it appeared as though Ferrari stepped in at the pit stops to bring Vettel back into line.

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Unlike last week in Singapore, Leclerc was called into the pits first, and although Vettel asked to stop just two laps later, he was left out on track on worn tyres four laps longer than Leclerc, meaning he came out behind his younger teammate after he eventually stopped.

Vettel's car failed on the same lap, and in the ultimate irony, destroyed his teammates race. Unable to make it back to the pits to retire, Vettel parked out on track, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car and gifting the Mercedes drivers a free pit stop. That left Leclerc trailing both Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, a situation he was unable to do anything about for the remainder of the race.

The fact that Ferrari was able to engineer a situation where Leclerc was ahead of Vettel after the pitstops means the team is able to publicly pretend that all is well. But having a four-time world champion openly question, and then defy team orders, suggests that the opposite is true within the Scuderia. Coming so soon after the drama of Singapore, where Leclerc felt that his teammate was given a more favourable strategy that allowed Vettel to win the race, only adds to the tension that is sure to exist within the team.

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Leclerc had spoken on Saturday about the disadvantage of starting from pole, concerned that Hamilton in second place would be able to pass him at the start. From his point of view, the pre-race arrangement with Vettel was straightforward.

"The agreement was very simple," Leclerc said. "I had to give the slipstream to Seb at the beginning, let him past at the second corner for us to be first and second and then to swap back."

Vettel, though, seemed to have missed the memo.

"I don't know exactly what happened," he said. "We had an agreement. I spoke with Charles before the race and I think it was quite clear but maybe I missed something. We will speak later."

a man wearing a uniform: Charles Leclerc finished third at the Russian Grand Prix.© AP Charles Leclerc finished third at the Russian Grand Prix.

When pressed to explain exactly what the agreement was, the 32-year-old clammed up.

"I don't want to share," Vettel said. "I don't want to put the team in a bad position afterwards. I know it's not fair because I think people deserve to know. We were talking about a strategy to find a way past Lewis. I had a very good start and there were a couple of options. I prefer not to (expand)."

Team principal Mattia Binotto was trying to douse the flames after the race.

"We agreed that the best way was not to give a slipstream to Hamilton, first, and therefore Charles would give the slipstream to Seb," Binotto said.

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"But giving the slipstream and not defending would give the advantage to Seb, which later on [we] would give back by swapping the cars. So that was the deal.

"Our judgement was the start went as planned and therefore we thought it was right to ask Seb to swap the positions.

"We initially asked Seb to give the position back but (it's) fair enough to say at that stage maybe Charles was not close enough and we would have lost some time, and later on Seb was quite fast and gained some advantage so we knew we could decide to do it later."

Former world champion Jenson Button believes the team made a rod for its own back by putting in place an agreement that wasn't required.

"I don't get why they had a deal in the first place," Button said on Sky Sports.

"The best Sebastian was ever going to do was second in that race.

"It's such a strange deal to have. He (Leclerc) wasn't going to keep to the right and help Lewis out.

"They should have had a deal that, OK, you're leading the race, you stick to the left and help Vettel at the start.

"If he gets passed, he gets passed. Ferrari wins. It's just a very strange situation to be in."

While this year's championship is all but decided in Hamilton's favour, Ferrari's resurgence means both Vettel and Leclerc are trying to lay down a marker for 2020. The two drivers can clearly see a situation where Ferrari is the team to beat next season, a situation that would see them fighting for a world title.

With that in mind, the remaining five races of 2019 will make for fascinating viewing.

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