The Roar From The Paddock Returns With Another Edition From Aaron Gillard. This Week’s Feature Talks About The Decision Ferrari Made To Keep Charles Leclerc Behind Sebastian Vettel During The Australian Grand Prix. Was It The Right Call?
After a long wait, Formula 1 returns to our TV screens for another season of action and drama. The dreading 5AM (for UK viewers) wake up call is out of the way and we got our taste of F1 racing back with the Australian Grand Prix.
Surprisingly, it was Valtteri Bottas who showed a dominant drive to take his first ever win since the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in 2017. He hasn’t won in a whole calendar year and this season was the year to turn it all around with Mercedes.
He didn’t do just that, but he did it in a dominant and champion-like drive. Bottas in 2019 is a new man and he’s prepared to not be someone’s wing man. A very solid performance and taking the first ever fastest lap point in the sport since 1959. Bottas started his season the best possible way down under.
Whilst his win is considered the main highlight, there is plenty to talk about after the first race. Honda grabbing their first ever podium since their return to F1 in their first race with new partner Red Bull, the return of Daniil Kvyat as he held off newly promoted Red Bull driver Pierre Gasly, Daniel Ricciardo’s strange accident seconds after the lights went out that saw his front wing fall apart. Plenty to discuss.
But there’s one subject that’s been circulating around and has created a bit of controversy and has gotten everyone talking after the race: Ferrari’s call to not allow Charles Leclerc pass Sebastian Vettel.
The decision by Ferrari has received negative comments from fans and journalists, mainly because the order came at the very first race of the season.
Whilst it has been natural in Ferrari’s history to embed team orders to their drivers during the race, it was very odd for them to use them at the first race of the new campaign.
Throughout the weekend, Ferrari were near to the pace of rivals Mercedes until qualifying when the Silver Arrows obliterated the field and secured a front row lockout for the race. Vettel started the race in third whilst Leclerc in his first ever qualifying session with his new team could only manage fifth.
Their race pace didn’t improve the team’s fortunes and were miles away from winning the race itself. Their pace and strategy call for Vettel was bad that even Verstappen managed to surpass him for a podium position. A decision to pit on Lap 15 for the Medium tyre and go to the end was a very ambitious call, which didn’t pay off in the end.
Leclerc’s race on the other hand, started poorly. The Monegasque driver touched his experienced team mate at the start of the race, nearly causing a puncture on Vettel’s rear wheel. Leclerc then went off-track at the first corner, losing lots of time to the cars in front. But his race was saved by a late strategy compare to Vettel, and switching to the hard tyre instead of the mediums like his team mate.
This allowed Leclerc to gain on Vettel with laps to spare and even at one point, creating an opportunity to pass him. But with the race nearing its conclusion, Leclerc started to back off and allow a gap to form from himself and Vettel. It later turned out that Leclerc asked on the radio whether he had to stay behind Vettel or not.
He was told to hold position.
Here is the team radio of @Charles_Leclerc asking if he should stay behind Vettel
Charles: "Should I stay behind Sebastian? Yes or no?"
"Yes and back off to have some margin"
— tami. (@Vetteleclerc) March 17, 2019
This alone created a spark on social media, with fans saying they were disappointed that the team made an order so early into the new season. But here is an ‘unpopular opinion’; Ferrari made the right call to do this.
First of all, the gap between fourth and third was massive, and was growing by the pace of Verstappen chasing down Hamilton for second place. Switching places would prove to be pointless for the team as they would leave with the same points.
The weekend was a total lost for Ferrari with the lack of pace and their car not suitable for the Albert Park circuit. Team boss Mattia Binotto even admitted that the unusual characteristics of the track wasn’t ideal for their car, meaning their strong pre-season pace couldn’t be repeated.
They were multiple seconds away from the podium and multiple seconds ahead of sixth place Kevin Magnussen. It was best for the team to bring the cars home and regroup.
It is also worth mentioning that Ferrari are most likely going to prioritise Vettel at the beginning of the season, mainly due to his experience and leadership he has within the team compare to second-year Leclerc.
Whilst it has noted that both Vettel and Leclerc would be presented equal status at some point in the year, but at the first race of 2019 I very doubt they will be playing equal status then. You don’t hand the rookie equal chances to a veteran like Vettel immediately. It’s like you passing your driving test and for your first car you’re expecting a Ferrari. You don’t get the big perks straight away, you have to learn and earn them.
You have to give them time to nurture within the team before they start taking as the number one.
That’s how it often works in sports. For example, the Baltimore Ravens in the NFL drafted a new quarterback last season, whilst still having their championship-winning leader in the team. They didn’t rush and gave Lamar Jackson the keys straight away. They put him in the passenger seat and allow him to learn from Joe Flacco, before he was eventually given the starting role. At the end of the year, Jackson is now the leader of the team whilst Flacco left for the Denver Broncos.
It has happened in F1 before. As much as we admire the talents of Leclerc, he’s young and fresh at Ferrari. It would dangerous for the team to give him equal status or a number one role so early on. What if he fails? That would lead into a massive knock of confidence, or maybe even his seat.
You want to give him the right people to learn from and mature into a driver that can lead a team to a title and beyond.
So the call by Ferrari to hold position was right. If the call wasn’t made and Leclerc attempted a move on Vettel, it could of ended in tears. That’s a nightmare for a team who was favored heavily coming off pre-season testing. A crash between the two could create tension between the team and the two drivers, something Binotto would like to avoid at all cost.
Leclerc himself asked about whether he should stay behind Vettel, not the team. It is possible that the team were preparing to make it the call to Leclerc, but instead he triggered the call himself by asking about Vettel. Leclerc himself said after the race that he understood the call.
Does this call by Ferrari mean that they see Leclerc as a threat to Vettel already? No. We are only in race one out of twenty one. This is way too early to start making calls like this. Ferrari often pull this tactic out of the hat frequently to keep both cars in check, but doesn’t mean that driver one status is being handed out. Yes, whilst Leclerc does have a future here with the tea, he knew what he was signing up for through their academy, the team etc. that he wasn’t going to be leading the Italian team straight away.
I’m sure Ferrari next time will handle the situation more differently. But for this situation down under in Australia, they made the right call into holding position for the pair. It isn’t worth the risk, there’s more to lose than to gain and you don’t want to cause a rift within the team after one race.
For the time being though, the team need to focus on regrouping for the next race in Bahrain, a track where they’ve won at for two consecutive years. If their pace does show around the Sahkir circuit, then Ferrari fans can worry less about their shocking performance at the season opener.