Formula 1 2019: What does tumultuous relationship between Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel say about Ferrari's future plans?
For 2020, Vettel needs to pull off a miracle if he wants to retain his racing seat at Ferrari, as well as his formidable reputation in the sport. As for Leclerc, 2020 will be about consolidating his 2019 brilliance.
Sebastian Vettel, at 32, is a Formula 1 legend - he is a four-time world champion with immense experience and talent. He has proven himself to be one of the most talented drivers in this era of Formula 1. His teammate, 22-year-old Charles Leclerc has only just finished his second season of racing. At best, he is a young driver with great potential. On paper, Vettel and Leclerc seem to be two drivers in completely different career cycles - a perfectly complementary pairing. However, the 2019 season saw an aggressive duel between Vettel and Leclerc for supremacy - a duel which repeatedly threatened to fracture the team’s dynamic and cohesion.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) December 9, 2019
The context Ferrari has always been a team with a clear number one driver - with the teammate acting as a wingman or supporting driver. Drivers have been seldom allowed to race and the team has blatantly employed team orders. Vettel moved to Ferrari in 2015 as the undisputed top dog, with a seasoned Kimi Raikkonen playing an able number two. When Ferrari announced that Raikkonen would be replaced by Ferrari junior driver Leclerc for the 2019 season, it was seen as succession planning by the team - Vettel would continue to lead the team’s challenge against Mercedes (and Lewis Hamilton) in the short-term, while Leclerc would be groomed for the future.
Ahead of the 2019 season Ferrari team principal Mattia Benito publicly announced that Vettel would be given priority by the team - and nobody was surprised. After all, 2019 was Vettel’s fifth season with the team - and he was a proven champion. The paddock made lavish comparisons to Michael Schumacher, who started winning dominantly in his fifth season with Ferrari. The hype around Vettel was so high that Leclerc admitted to being “intimidated” when he first moved to Ferrari. However, as the 2019 season progressed, things seemed to go awry from Ferrari’s carefully laid out plan. Let’s take a closer look at how things panned out: VET vs LEC: Reliving the incidents The first warning signs between the teammates came at just the second race of the season (Bahrain). Leclerc qualified on pole (his first in Formula 1 and with Ferrari) and subsequently defied Ferrari’s team orders during the race. He was set for a maiden win, but it was snatched away when his engine lost power towards the end of the race. At that point, many thought Leclerc’s disobedient behaviour was uncharacteristic - we can all remember his earlier days of excessively apologising on the radio. In retrospect though, it seems like Leclerc disregarding team orders was simply a sign of his sheer ambition and hunger to succeed. Over the next few races, the dynamic seemed to stabilize as Vettel finished ahead of Leclerc in the next five races from China to Canada, taking four podiums along the way. In Canada, Vettel was given a five-second penalty for colliding with Lewis Hamilton - a penalty which caused him to lose the race win to Hamilton. However, Vettel brazenly insisted that he was the true winner of the race, even grabbing the P1 sign and placing it in front of his car in parc ferme. It seemed like he had risen above the Leclerc threat and was back to battling Hamilton - on and off the track.
Over the next three races (France, Austria and Britain) the pendulum shifted as Leclerc took a hat-trick of podium finishes, while Vettel didn’t manage a single one. It seemed like the youngster was finding his rhythm at Ferrari. He explained, “The team put me at ease, and I have grown in confidence to give my thoughts on what I want, and that has helped us to move forward.” At the Belgian Grand Prix, Leclerc finally clinched his maiden victory, holding off Hamilton to the line. It was an emotional moment for the young driver - but also signaled to the world that Leclerc had arrived.
It was incredulous for many that Ferrari’s first victory of the season had come thanks to Leclerc, and not Vettel. This contrast only got sharper at Monza, the immediate next race, in front of thousands of adoring Ferrari fans. In qualifying, Leclerc failed to give Vettel a crucial slipstream (as was previously decided) leaving him floundering in P4 on the starting grid. Things went further downhill during the race when Vettel spun off unprovoked - for the second year in a row - and eventually finished a lowly P13. Meanwhile, Leclerc had a glorious weekend as he claimed pole and the race win for the second time in as many weeks. Incredibly, the last time a Ferrari won at Monza was in 2009 with Fernando Alonso at the wheel.
The stress from Monza seemed to boil over at Singapore. Leclerc started on pole, but a bungled Ferrari strategy saw him finish runner-up to Vettel. Leclerc was deeply upset by the incident, saying that it was “not fair” and that he was “very disappointed.” The next week, however, Leclerc attempted to smooth things over - saying that he “overreacted” to the turn of events. Incredibly, this botched and ‘gifted’ victory was Vettel’s first and only win of the season - and also his first in over a year. In the following race in Russia, it was Vettel who went rogue - reneging on an elaborate pre-race agreement to take the tow from Leclerc to get an edge over Hamilton - and then return the position to Leclerc. The drama was cut short when Vettel suffered from a MGU-K failure - but not before exchanging embarrassing radio messages between Ferrari and their drivers.
— Scuderia Ferrari (@ScuderiaFerrari) December 3, 2019
All hell broke loose in the penultimate race of the season (Brazil) - the pressure cooker situation that had been building up at Ferrari exploded. The teammates collided on track, ending both their races - and losing the team valuable points in the championship. While no driver was publicly given responsibility for the incident, it was an incident of Vettel attacking too hard - and Leclerc defending back equally hard. To onlookers, it seemed like a season’s worth of aggression, broken promises and rivalry between the two boiled down to that moment and that corner. Said Binotto after the incident, "I don't think it is a matter of managing the drivers here, it is a matter of recognizing what have been the actions and what have been mistakes." The outcome: Leclerc trumps Vettel At the start of the season, Vettel was the natural number one while Leclerc was the champion-in-waiting. At the end of the season, the playing field seemed to have levelled out - or even tilted in Leclerc’s flavour. Leclerc signed off the season as the quicker Ferrari driver, finishing the season 24 championship points ahead of Vettel. Binotto referred to this as a “great achievement” for the young Monegasque. The other numbers are telling as well - Leclerc scored more poles, podiums and wins than Vettel in 2019. In fact, Leclerc had seven poles in 2019 - more than any other driver on the grid. Shared an impressed Binotto, “He surprised me how fast he is at first. I think he’s really very fast, and that’s something which is important for a team when you can count on a driver who is so fast.” The biggest issue with Vettel’s 2019 season was the alarming frequency with which he made unforced errors. Mistakes in Bahrain and Canada cost him race wins and an embarrassing spin at Monza in front of the tifosi cost him his pride. Admitted Vettel after the season finale in Abu Dhabi, “I’ve had a couple of mistakes that I shouldn’t make.” All these mistakes may be pardonable individually, but when viewed together, seem to tell the story of a crumbling champion - especially since he has been making them since 2017. In fact, most of us are now surprised when Vettel drives a clean race.
2019 may be over, but Vettel and Leclerc will remain teammates in 2020 - which the team referred to as the 'best F1 drivers pairing'. Binotto insisted the two had maintained a good relationship despite the Brazil incident, saying, “"From the start of the season when they did not know each other, they currently have got a good relationship and they are going well together. Certainly today (Brazil) did not help, but I don't see it is a drama. I see it more as an opportunity in the view of next year to clarify if needed."
Truly, Ferrari will need to dig deep to better manage this newly evolving dynamic in 2020. To quote Binotto: “When we started the season, the situation was different. We had a young driver and an experienced driver. But if you look at the last races, they were quite free to race and that’s where we start.” Remember that this is a team which is not used to intra-team rivalries, or drivers disobeying team orders. They will have to find ways to maintain equality, while allowing each driver to fulfill their personal goals. It will be interesting to see whether they let the two freely fight it out on track (a la Mercedes) or still try to impose some structure and hierarchy.
At this point, the future looks truly ominous for Vettel. Objectively speaking, he has seen better days as a driver. This season has done him no favors - and it is the second time that he is being beaten by a new teammate (previously in 2014, when he was beaten by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull Racing). How long will Ferrari patiently watch him flounder and fail, instead of pulling the team together and strongly challenging Mercedes? Just a few weeks ago, news emerged that Ferrari had met with Lewis Hamilton - an indication that Ferrari could be preparing for life after Vettel. For 2020, Vettel needs to pull off a miracle if he wants to retain his racing seat at Ferrari, as well as his formidable reputation in the sport. As for Leclerc, 2020 will be about consolidating his 2019 brilliance - as well as showing that he can contribute to the team technically. Let’s stay tuned for the next edition of this tumultuous relationship.
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