Few would have thought the spectre of team orders would loom over the new Formula One season so soon. Yes, Ferrari had been honest in saying they would favour Sebastian Vettel over his teammate Charles Leclerc in 50-50 situations but after three races where they have employed team orders in every one, it seems the Scuderia have been so taken aback by Leclerc’s performances that he has forced them into dictating to their drivers quite so soon. Managing them on track is one issue the Scuderia must handle but as they head to Baku for this week’s race, they must now also be considering whether the 21-year-old might be the better bet.
Leclerc is in only his second season in F1 and his first for Ferrari. Vettel is a four-times champion in his 13th season. Much as team orders are unwanted by fans and certainly do no favours for the public perception of the sport, they are perfectly legal and team principal Mattia Binotto’s pre-season decision to favour Vettel appeared sensible. Vettel has the experience and would have been expected to have the edge on his younger teammate.
Ferrari may even have anticipated that in doing so some of the pressure would have eased from Leclerc in his debut season for the team. Instead he has stepped up and proved very competitive from first race weekend. He is one point behind Vettel in the championship and could have been ahead, were it not for the mechanical problem that cost him a win in Bahrain.
This has created a conundrum for Ferrari, exacerbated by their poor performance in relation to Mercedes, who have scored one-two finishes in each of the three races so far this year. Bahrain aside, where Leclerc finished third, Ferrari’s expected challenge has not materialised yet, and consequently they have found themselves having to attempt to make the best of difficult positions.
In that context the team orders thus far have at least made sense. In Australia the two Ferraris nearly collided at the first corner and the team were struggling for pace, well behind Mercedes in the race. When Leclerc charged after Vettel on fresh rubber in the closing stages but was told to hold station, it was understandable caution on his team’s behalf.
At the next round in Bahrain Leclerc had been quickest all weekend but lost his place to Vettel off the start. The team asked him to hold position for two laps behind the German, and would almost certainly have moved him through as the faster of the two, their hesitation prompted perhaps only in picking the best moment. However, Leclerc saw a chance and went for it anyway, passing Vettel and making the decision moot.
In China Vettel had been marginally quicker in qualifying but lost a place to Leclerc off the line. Vettel believed he was quicker and with Leclerc not catching the two Mercedes, Ferrari had him move over. The decision was rational despite the fact Vettel then made no inroads on Mercedes either. That their subsequent race strategy cost Leclerc just made it more painful for him.
Photograph: Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
They were in each case forced to react but potentially were already constrained by their own self-imposed red line of favouring the more experienced driver. Added to which, much as the Scuderia has been utterly ruthless with team orders in the past, this is relatively new territory. For four years Vettel was partnered with Kimi Raikkonen, who barely challenged him. Orders were not required because the two often seemed to be in different races.
Leclerc has forced a new dynamic on the team. He took it on the chin in China, although he looked far from happy, but he will have noted the decision and doubtless how it might be turned to his advantage in future. Indeed, the Mercedes team principal, Toto Wolff, was spot on in identifying that there is not a driver on the grid who would not claim they were faster than the car in front, adding to Ferrari’s pitwall peril.
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“Once you start doing these things, it becomes very complicated,” he said. “Because you start to set a precedent, you’re opening up a can of worms and then every single race the car that is behind would say: ‘I can go quicker’. So it’s not an easy situation.”
Last week Gerhard Berger, who drove for Ferrari in two spells across six seasons, perhaps expressed the opinion of everyone outside the Scuderia who would rather see a straight fight. He said: “I don’t think it’s enough to say: ‘Well this one is experienced, this one is not experienced so we take the card of the experience.’ I think let it run.”
Much as that would be marvellous, Berger’s entreaty seems unlikely to be met. With Ferrari now having gone over 10 years without a title, Binotto already has some weight on his shoulders. In Baku he must hope Ferrari can address the performance deficit that has left Vettel 31 points behind championship leader Hamilton.
If they do, a strong performance from Leclerc there, where he has shown great form before, would make a compelling case and Binotto may have to consider that if they must continue to use team orders, Leclerc should be the beneficiary.