Leclerc has earned his spurs and deserves parity with Vettel at Ferrari

The case for Germany’s four-time champion not being No 1 with the Scuderia next season is overwhelming

Already beaten and bloody from a punishing season, Ferrari completed Paul Weller’s Eton triumvirate by emerging from the Brazilian Grand Prix with sick down their shirt. Heading into the winter to regroup, the very last thing the Scuderia needed was for their drivers to clash on track and bring to a premature head the problem the team have in how they manage Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc next season. Indeed, what Brazil demonstrated is that they may have a problem that is simply intractable.

At Interlagos the two drivers were set for a solid points finish when they came together battling for fourth. Leclerc had put in a fine move up the inside of turn one to pass Vettel but the German, with DRS, came back at him on the run towards T4, Descida do Lago. Vettel went in front but then moved marginally over towards Leclerc. They touched, both took damage and retired. Both were furious, both believed the other to have been at fault.

Leclerc had left Vettel just enough room on his right to make the move, at which point they are still competing for the best line into turn four. Moving across Leclerc to squeeze him off line is perfectly legal but Vettel also knew Leclerc is not required to give ground at all. Completely unintimidated, Leclerc held his line and they clashed. The similarities with a similar move Vettel pulled on Mark Webber at the Turkish Grand Prix in 2010 are remarkable. There, similarly putting the squeeze on the Australian during a pass, they touched and Vettel had to retire.

For Vettel it must count as another mistake in a season marked by several glaring errors. Underestimating the likelihood of Leclerc just ceding the place at this point in the season, after the from and fortitude the Monegasque has displayed, would be a serious miscalculation. The alternative, that Vettel believed he did not have enough space, would suggest it was another driving misjudgment in the heat of battle.

Neither scenario is pleasing for him to contemplate. The bigger picture for Ferrari is much worse. Crucially the incident does not stand alone. With Vettel the No 1 driver at the start of the season, Leclerc in his first year at Ferrari dutifully played the game, holding station behind him as ordered in Australia. At the very next round in Bahrain, however, there was an immediate sign he would be no pushover. There he ignored a similar instruction and passed his teammate when he had a quicker car. Pretty soon he looked to be clearly the more comfortable and quicker of the two in this year’s car.

Ferrari made it clear they want to manage their drivers as much as possible to the team’s advantage. It has not worked. At Monza, Leclerc did not, as planned, give a tow to Vettel in qualifying. Two races later in Russia, Vettel pointedly ignored another pre-race plan and then team orders in not giving Leclerc back the place he had gained with a tow off the start.

Charles Leclerc will almost certainly finish in front of Sebastian Vettel in the championship in his first season at Ferrari.
Charles Leclerc will almost certainly finish in front of Sebastian Vettel in the championship in his first season at Ferrari. Photograph: Silvia Izquierdo/AP

After Sochi the Team principal, Mattia Binotto, described having two such competitive and ruthless drivers as a “luxury” but one he stressed that had to be controlled. “What’s important for them is to be animals because that’s the best way to be really aggressive and fast in the race weekend,” he said. “It’s important for the team to be aware of that, try to prevent it. We are trying to manage our drivers to the benefit of the team and the drivers themselves.”

Tellingly he noted at the time that he knew doing so would be a challenge. “You can always decide to let them race. That would be the easier solution,” he said. In Brazil, with second in the constructors’ championship sealed, they were allowed to race and the result was even worse than the attempts at micro-management that had preceded it.

Ferrari have now tried plan A and neither driver seems overly inclined to toe the line when required. Letting them off the leash in plan B failed spectacularly, leaving the team on the horns of a dilemma.

The Scuderia has been clear it sees Leclerc as the future of the team. With one race remaining he will almost certainly finish in front of Vettel in the championship and already has more poles than the German. He has made fewer errors than Vettel too, even though he is in only his second season in F1. There are parallels here with Lewis Hamilton’s arrival at McLaren in 2007 when Fernando Alonso was bent out of shape by the British driver’s immediate success and Alonso left at he end of the season.

As things stand Vettel will be at Ferrari next year but the case for him not to be the team’s No 1 driver at the beginning of next season is overwhelming. Leclerc has surely earned at least parity if not more. Ferrari have the winter to find some sort of third way to manage their men. If they do not, next season’s challenge is going to be a huge ask, even before the opposition have turned a wheel in anger.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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