Top 20 Stories of 2019
Top Stories of 2019, #3: Teammate tensions build at Ferrari
We're getting towards the business end of our Top Stories countdown now, and coming in at number three is the year of turbulence at Ferrari as Charles Leclerc gradually came to assert himself over Sebastian Vettel.
There was a prevailing narrative in 2019 that will remain many people's defining memory of the season - that it was a campaign in which Ferrari did everything wrong and repeatedly shot itself in the foot despite having built a great car.
It is indeed undeniable that the Scuderia got some things very wrong during the year, and equally so that some of the decisions taken were masterstrokes. When it comes to how it managed its two drivers Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, however, the truth likely sits somewhere in between, even though the controversy of Sochi and the calamity of Brazil may suggest otherwise.
Leclerc had begun the season as, if not driver #2, then driver #1.5, at least as per Mattia Binotto's assertion that Vettel would be favoured if it came down to making a decision. And come Australia, this bore out - in the very opening race of the season, the Monegasque was asked not to attack his teammate for fourth late on and duly obliged.
A similar request followed in Bahrain in the early laps, after Leclerc had slipped behind Vettel, but the newcomer ignored it this time and no real public reproach followed - not from Vettel, and not from Ferrari, although admittedly admonishing Leclerc for defiance would've been a terrible look given how the race played out and how it ended.
In any case, Binotto would show again and again he wasn't one for much public criticism. After most of the season went by without intra-team flare-ups, in Monza Ferrari and Vettel were clearly displeased by Leclerc dawdling in overtaking Vettel on the second run in Q3, his hesitation having played a major part in Vettel being denied a proper shot at pole. Leclerc went on to win and was "forgiven" on team radio, and Binotto chose to keep his cards close to his chest on that one, insisting that whatever discussions were held "will remain between us three".
Though by then the balance of power at Ferrari had clearly shifted and the days of Vettel's assumed supremacy were over, the German had just aided Leclerc's victory bid in Spa and his dissatisfaction at the events of the Italian GP was plain.
Equally plain was Leclerc's frustration over Ferrari's strategy helping Vettel to a victory in Singapore, which some had suggested was the team's management attempting to rein in its rising star.
But all of that was small potatoes compared to Russia, where a Ferrari pre-race strategy - either brilliant or needlessly micro-managed, depending on who you ask - turned a 1-3 on the grid into a 1-2 in the race, only for Vettel to then refuse to swap back positions.
A Vettel win from there on would've made the situation untenable, but some Ferrari strategy machinations quickly made sure this wouldn't come to fruition - even if the team denied this was a specific target. Either way, the atmosphere in the post-race media debrief was icy, and you didn't need to be any sort of psychologist to see that Vettel and Leclerc were not enjoying each other's company in that moment.
And just as that wound had had enough time to heal, a minor contact in Brazil put both Ferraris under the race and got the news cycle going once more,
In the end, though there were flashpoints aplenty, there are no decisions taken by Ferrari that come across as huge blunders. Perhaps it could've given its drivers equal status at the start, but the initial caveat certainly didn't seem to hold Leclerc back. Perhaps it could've more openly criticised Leclerc after Italy, but that is a tough line to take with your home race hero.
If the Sochi pre-race agreement was excessive, it was still on course to deliver a 1-2 finish until an untimely car failure. And the Brazil clash, as both Ferrari's drivers and those racing for rival teams have emphasised, was seriously unfortunate, about as minor a contact to cause a double retirement as you'll find in the last few F1 seasons.
There's no doubt, too, that Ferrari had a bigger intra-team challenge than either of its main rivals. At both Mercedes and Red Bull, there currently isn't much debate to be had as to which driver should be the team's focal point. Lewis Hamilton in race trim was simply too quick to have to worry much about preferential strategy, while Max Verstappen was pretty much running in different races entirely compared to his two Red Bull teammates.
In the end, Binotto - who has repeatedly emphasises his focus on togetherness within the team - has largely shielded his drivers from public criticism and sought to deal with issues internally. Whether this worked out during 2019 is hard to tell, given Ferrari had bigger issues to combat, and it thus might be 2020 that offers a better glimpse of how successful the new Ferrari regime is at managing its main assets.
Click here to see the list of Top 20 stories so far.
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, and Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
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