Remarkably, the Sochi controversy between Ferrari drivers Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel was the seventh incident between them involving the team’s pit wall this season.
It’s very clear that the dynamic of the young, thrusting, ambitious Leclerc with the proud multiple champion Vettel is a very challenging one for the team to control. Mattia Binotto is claiming that it’s a nice problem to have two such competitive drivers, but how long before it spills over into something more than a radio argument?
The tone was set at the very first race of the season.
The story so far
Vettel had qualified as comfortably the faster Ferrari driver in Melbourne but into the first turn Leclerc had slipstreamed him and was looking to go around his outside for third position. Vettel hung him out to dry over the kerbs, Leclerc’s wheels kicking up the dust. I think he didn’t see me, said Leclerc, diplomatically later.
Vettel was forced by undercut pressure from Max Verstappen to pit much earlier than Leclerc, who had no undercut pressure on account of running at the back of the leading car group.
The tyre difference was 14 laps (lap 14 vs 28) so Leclerc was closing Vettel down massively fast in the last stint. Vettel – who had effectively been declared by Binotto as the team number one going into the season – was only in this compromised position because he’d been running much further up the field than Leclerc, and so had undercut pressure. It was adjudged that Leclerc should back off and the team hold position. Leclerc did so, albeit in quite an obvious way.
In Bahrain a race later, Leclerc had qualified on pole from Vettel but hadn’t done a great job of getting his tyres up to temperature on the way to the grid, so was slow off the line, dropping to third as Vettel sprinted into the lead.
As Leclerc’s tyres came up to temperature he repassed the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas and quickly closed up to the back of Vettel, then radioed: I’m faster, guys. Leclerc was ordered to hold station for two laps but ignored the request and passed Vettel cleanly with DRS a few corners later.
In Shanghai, Vettel was the faster Ferrari driver but in backing off to avoid Bottas into turn one allowed Leclerc around his outside. Vettel spent several laps under Leclerc’s rear wing and insisted over the radio he was being held up. When Leclerc was asked to move aside, he argued that he was only slow because he was saving tyres. This delayed the swap-around further and when Vettel eventually was waved through his tyres were damaged from all the laps in Leclerc’s dirty air.
Now what? asked Leclerc. Later, he said: I’m losing quite a lot of time here. Don’t know if you want to know. Just letting you know. Vettel took third place. Ferrari tried to give Leclerc a second bite at the cherry by running him long, to get him a tyre advantage at the end, but that succeeded only in allowing Verstappen’s Red Bull past for fourth.
Binotto calmed the waters afterwards, saying: I understand the feeling of Charles, it’s a shame for him. But at that stage of the race the Mercedes were slightly faster. We simply tried to give Sebastian a go and see if we could’ve kept the pace of the Mercedes, which was key at that stage of the race. It was not to give an advantage to a driver, to the other driver, merely as a team to try whatever we could.
At Spain for round five, Vettel tried an ambitious move around the outside of Bottas’ Mercedes into the first corner of the race, locked up and ran slightly off track. This enabled Leclerc to get momentum on him and he went to pass around the outside of turn two. As at Melbourne, Vettel ran the other Ferrari over the kerb. Again, Leclerc said: I think he didn’t see me.
Vettel had flat-spotted into that first turn and soon Leclerc was all over him, asking the team to be let by. The team gave Vettel four laps too long to speed up or move aside, costing Leclerc time. The situation was later transposed as Vettel was put early onto a two-stop while Leclerc tried to stay one-stop. So Vettel was soon catching Leclerc.
There was some confusion and conflicting messages given to each driver, Leclerc defending on track as Vettel tried to pass until eventually it was clarified that Leclerc should move aside. It cost Vettel 10 laps at reduced pace. They had each cost each other time in the race.
In Hungary a few months later, Vettel was on much newer tyres at the end of the race and catching Leclerc fast for third place. He threw his car down the inside of the other Ferrari in uncompromising fashion to claim the place.
At Monza – where the slipstream tow is so powerful – it was Vettel’s turn to decide on the running order for the final Q3 runs. He chose to be given the tow for that final run, thereby putting Leclerc in position to be towed by Vettel in the first runs. This part went to plan in that Vettel towed Leclerc to a provisional pole.
But in the traffic stand-off of the final runs, as slow-moving cars backed off, each trying to get the other to go, Leclerc backed off with them rather than forging to the front. Vettel had to take matters into his own hands by forcing through the traffic, with Leclerc then told to overtake and give the tow, as agreed. They failed to make the line before the chequered flag and so Leclerc remained on pole. The team was not buying his excuses later and backed Vettel. But a superb pressure victory from Leclerc (and an unpressured spin from Vettel) led Binotto to say ‘All is forgiven,’ afterwards.
In Singapore, Vettel was pitted from third place to prevent an undercut attempt by Red Bull and to attempt to undercut past Hamilton. The undercut effect was four times as powerful as expected – and so Vettel’s early stop accidentally undercut him past not only Hamilton but also Leclerc. The latter repeatedly asked for an explanation and said he considered it unfair. The positions were not inverted and Vettel led a Scuderia one-two.
The impact of Sochi
This was the backdrop to the situation in Sochi where the opening choreography of Vettel slipstreaming past pole-sitter Leclerc was devised to prevent Hamilton from towing past.
It was agreed that Leclerc would not fight out the first corner and that Vettel would lead – and give the place back later. Vettel’s interpretation of the agreement seemed slightly but crucially different. Ferrari inverted them strategically at the pit stops instead.
Binotto again had to calm the waters between his two drivers and the team worded their way through the controversy quite diplomatically.
But all the indications are that this isn’t resolved. Which places significant question marks about the future viability of the pairing.