OPINION | Devastatingly quick Leclerc vs. Experienced Vettel - reader

Wheels24 reader Neil Hamilton shares his views about Ferrari team mates Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc. After a chaotic start to the year, controversy is rife within the team, despite their strong comeback after the mid-season break.

Rollback the years… 

It’s 2008 at Monza: A young buck qualifies on pole – remarkably – ahead of the title-contending Mclarens and Ferraris in a Toro Rosso. He pulls away from the grid at the start and dominates the race to become the youngest ever (at the time) race winner, and the ONLY winner to date driving an STR (Squadra Toro Rosso). 

And he did it - in the wet! 

Wait… what??!!! 

Yet, that is exactly how Sebastian Vettel announced himself to the world as a race winner and future world champion. Young, fresh-faced, devastatingly fast, “Seb” would graduate to the Red Bull senior team in 2009, and miss out on the title by only a few points. 

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                                                     Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images

He would go on to dominate F1, winning four back-to-back titles for Red Bull between 2010 and 2013, before moving to Ferrari in 2015, after a lacklustre 2014 against then up-and-coming Daniel Ricciardo. Four seasons at Ferrari. 0 titles.

A 2017 and 2018 campaign that looked so promising… and then, mistakes upon mistakes, and a title challenge that faded away. 2019: A new year, a new team mate, and a car that looked the fastest in winter testing.

This looked like it would be Sebastian Vettel’s year IF he could beat Lewis Hamilton’s AMG Petronas Mercedes. On the other side of the fence, another young buck.

A youngster who has won in F2, proven a steady, reliable and fast driver at Alfa Romeo in 2018. New to Ferrari, and expected to follow in Vettel’s wheel tracks as he learns and hones his craft at Ferrari: Charles Leclerc. A product of the Ferrari Driver Academy, just like Seb was a product of the Red Bull Young Driver program. 2019 started awfully. Ferrari was nowhere.

Charles Leclerc Ferrari

                                                                         Image: Scuderia Ferrari

In Bahrain, we saw the beginning of what would turn into one of the talking points of the season. Ferrari on pole, but it wasn't Vettel. Charles Leclerc bagged his maiden pole. The Ferrari dominated, and though beaten off the line, Leclerc fought back, and against team orders, passed race leader Vettel and began building a gap. 

We know what happened. Vettel spun under pressure from Hamilton, and Leclerc was cruelly robbed of a maiden win due to MGU-K issues. But now we knew he could drive, and he knew he could win. 

Fortunes have see-sawed, but Leclerc seems to have been able to get to grips with the Ferrari SF90 better than Vettel. He made a mistake in Baku qualifying, ending up in the barriers and again missing out on a potential win.

Ferrari had massive pace on the street circuit dominated by one of the longest straights in F1, scything through the field to just miss out on a podium. In Monaco, he was again out of top 10 qualifying early due to a team blunder – his car left on jacks in the garage as the track came alive.

His anger barely disguised over the radio. Vettel has scored points and finished on podiums, and was robbed of a win by a controversial stewards decision in Canada, but throughout the season, it has looked like Leclerc is the faster driver, as his team mate has struggled. 

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The mid-season break over, and it seemed both Ferrari and their drivers have hit a purple patch. At an emotional Belgian Grand Prix, in the wake of the tragic accident which claimed the life of his friend Anthione Hubert in F2, Charles Leclerc finally broke his duck, scoring his maiden win while holding off Lewis Hamilton for the last few laps under intense pressure.

It was a brilliant drive by the young man and vindicated Ferrari’s faith in him. He drove a controlled race, managed his tyres and stayed in front. However, it cannot be denied that team mate Vettel had an assisting hand, holding a brutally quick Hamilton on fresher rubber at bay just long enough to allow Leclerc a gap, which would ultimately prove a race-winning advantage. A week later he would repeat his success, with an equally stunning drive at the Temple of Speed: Monza.

Home of Ferrari, and under the gaze of 200 000 Tifosi he would win for the first time since Fernando Alonso almost a decade before. Vettel would spin at Ascari on lap 3, then clatter into Lance Stroll when rejoining the race, and finish out of the points after a penalty, at a circuit where a Ferrari 1-2 was not just possible, but expected. 

Italy had a new favourite son. But that son has a darker, ruthless side to him. At Monza, where the tow is vitally important, Charles refused to give Seb the tow on his run, after Vettel had done so for him. Charles started on pole, Vettel fourth and out of position.

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                                                             Image: ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP

Vettel’s sarcastic "Thanks very much, thank you" after Q3 ended in shambles was evidence of a brewing dissatisfaction and rivalry at Ferrari. In Singapore, Charles was irate after being undercut by Vettel, who went on to win from his team mate, demanding answers from the team in radio broadcasts. The impression was that he had been robbed after playing the team game… and he made it known he was unhappy. 

At Sochi, Leclerc was again on pole, having now taken more pole position than anyone this season and comfortably out-qualifying Vettel over the season so far. With the long straight to turn 1, the tow is everything and he who starts 1st is rarely 1st at turn 2….apparently the agreement was that Leclerc would keep left to allow Vettel the slipstream, to ensure Ferrari was 1-2 at turn 1.

Well, Vettel made a brilliant start, passing Hamilton off the line and was well into the tow as the cars streamed down towards turn 1, pulling out and passing Leclerc for the lead. Vettel ran in fastest lap after fastest lap to begin pulling a gap, when on laps 2 and 3 the radio chatter started.

Charles was not happy and wanted to be let by into the lead. Ferrari told him Seb would let him by. Seb refused and said Leclerc must get closer as he was trailing by 4s at the time… and so began a war of words, and radio chatter between Ferrari and their drivers. 

We know how it ended. 

Leclerc pitted early while Seb was left out on old soft, softer tyres for far longer than necessary before stopping, by which time Leclerc had undercut him, and then promptly retired with MGU-K issues. This caused a virtual safety car which allowed Hamilton to stop and come out ahead.

sebastian vettel

                                                              Image: AFP / Andrej Isakovic

Ferrari then further ruined it by giving up track position for a set of soft tyres for Leclerc, who spent the rest of the race trying to get past Valterri Bottas. 1-2 for Mercedes, a podium and retirement for Ferrari, and controversy between their drivers. Is Leclerc contributing to the problems?

In my view yes… He is devastatingly fast over one lap and is now a proven race winner. Vettel, off his game a bit but seemingly now more comfortable in the car and coming off a race win at Singapore, and a good race until his retirement in Russia. Seb seems to want to get on with it and is quieter over the radio than is his team mate. 

Leclerc is feeding the tension with his open radio messages, and his failure to assist when required at Monza, as well as questioning the team previously as in China. 

Ferrari is not helping, and strong management is needed by the team, and Mattia Binotto. What they don’t need to do is to begin to manipulate pit stops as we saw in Russia, at the risk of Sebastian Vettel going rogue, as he “apparently” did in Russia.

We have seen what a rogue Vettel is capable of… (Multi-21 anyone?) While it won’t affect the championship much this year, such tensions and meddling will certainly affect any meaningful title challenge. 

In my view, all deals should be off. The cars need to finish as high as possible. Let them race. Charles should not be allowed to chatter over the radio as he has, and give away team strategy or tactics, and Binotto needs to put his foot down in that regard as it is embarrassing when a Ferrari works driver whines over the radio over not being allowed to pass his team mate or some deal that went sour or because he feels the team robbed him.

Also, we know what can happen if a driver feels a deal has been reneged on (1989 Senna/Prost and Imola, which led to the greatest feud in F1). Both cars should have equal priority and access to prime strategy and any insolence dealt with strongly (as Mercedes did with Hamilton and Rosberg). 

Come to think – it seems a bit like 1984 when another legend in the sport had a young buck who was faster next to him. Niki Lauda vs Alain Prost at Mclaren. Lauda focussed on race pace, much like Vettel, while Prost was awesome in qualifying much like Leclerc.

If Leclerc, like Prost, can learn from Vettel about his race pace (and it's obvious he is as the season progresses), then we are seeing the birth of another multiple world champion. Just stop whining, and race. The baton is being passed slowly, it’s an exciting time.

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