In the closing laps of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, Charles Leclerc was instructed to stay behind Sebastian Vettel by the Ferrari team. We take a look at the facts and ask whether or not the pair should have been free to race.
Ferrari had a disappointing start to their 2019 campaign. Having won the last two Albert Park races, they could finish no higher than fourth and fifth at this year’s event. Testing showed the SF90 has better potential than what it achieved in Melbourne. After Friday Practice, Sebastian Vettel reported that he didn’t feel as comfortable with the car as he had at the end of testing.
On Saturday, Ferrari qualified in third with Vettel and fifth with Charles Leclerc. Vettel was 0.704 seconds away from Lewis Hamilton’s pole lap in Q3. In 2018, Kimi Raikkonen’s lap for second on the grid was 0.664 seconds away from Hamilton’s time. Looking at each team’s best sector times, they reveal that Ferrari’s ultimate pace was 0.741 seconds away from that of Mercedes’ – 0.152 seconds up on the gap from 2018. If this gap is genuine or not, or the result of a track-specific set-up issue, will be determined at the second round in Bahrain.
The main talking point from Ferrari’s race was a radio call made in the closing stages, in which Leclerc asked whether or not to stay behind his team-mate, who was running in fourth after being overtaken by Max Verstappen. While Vettel struggled on the medium compound, Leclerc, who was running on the harder compound, closed the gap to his team-mate from seventeen seconds on Lap 29 after his pit-stop to 0.4 seconds by Lap 50.
Perhaps tellingly, Leclerc’s wording in his message was “shall I stay behind Sebastian? Yes or no?” not “can I pass Sebastian?” The reply: “Yes, and back off to have some margin”. It was a somewhat leading question from the Monegasque driver, suggesting he already knew what the answer would be. Whether he had already been instructed to stay behind and was double-checking, knew it was not worth passing his team-mate, or was not willing to ask the question in such a bold way on his debut Ferrari appearance is a matter for debate.
“As a team we decided not to take any risks, hold positions and to bring the cars home scoring points”
Later, Leclerc was told “we need four seconds to the car in front” when he was one and a half seconds behind his team-mate. Unsurprisingly, he questioned “for what reason?”, to which the team replied it was in order to have a chance at taking the extra point for fastest lap. Then, when three seconds behind Vettel, he was told to increase the gap by a further two seconds. The reaction: “Is he slowing down or what? What’s happening? I’m so slow, honestly”
Other than the extra two points for fourth place, Leclerc would have gained little by passing Vettel. Though he made inroads on his team-mate after his pit-stop, his gap to Verstappen ahead remained at a fairly consistent fifteen seconds for most of those laps. With only a handful of laps remaining after the call, it’s unlikely he would have finished any closer to Verstappen had he passed Vettel. Another option was for Leclerc to pit to take fresh tyres, with a sufficient gap to sixth-placed Kevin Magnussen, in order to put on some soft tyres and set the fastest lap. However, team Principal Mattia Binotto told Sky: “Whenever you pit it may be a risk and I think it was more important to bring the car home and score the points”.
— Lights Out ●●●●● (@LightsOutF1Blog) March 19, 2019
What do you think? Did Ferrari make the correct call in instructing Charles Leclerc to remain behind Sebastian Vettel in the Australian Grand Prix, or should the pair have been free to race? Vote in our Twitter poll and let us know your thoughts in the comments below!