Start, Sochi Autodrom, 2019

Hamilton triumphs as Ferrari’s micro-management backfires

2019 Russian Grand Prix review

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Sebastian Vettel’s repeated refusal to follow orders wrecked Ferrari’s attempt to stage-manage the Russian Grand Prix.

But it was an ill-timed power unit failure which handed a ninth victory of 2019 to Lewis Hamilton.

Making sense of Ferrari’s plan

Ferrari had a plan. Perhaps in retrospect it wasn’t the best. But what is clear is both drivers understood there was an arrangement to choreograph the start.

From third on the grid, Sebastian Vettel passed Lewis Hamilton easily. Vettel, like Leclerc, started from the clean side of the track and had much better grip. He then tucked into Leclerc’s slipstream, and his team mate obligingly left him the inside line and followed him into turn two.

As both drivers and team principal Mattia Binotto later confirmed, this had been planned before the race. Not only that Leclerc would help Vettel get past, but that if by doing so Vettel took the lead, he would be required to give it back to his team mate.

Vettel understood this too. When the race was neutralised by a Safety Car halfway around the first lap, he immediately asked his team on the radio to “let me know on the start”.

Ferrari’s day began to go wrong when, as lap two began, they let Vettel know about the start and he didn’t like what he heard. Before the end of the second lap he was told they would swap positions “later in the race”.

Vettel seemed to be under the impression that the point at which he passed Leclerc on the run to the first braking zone was significant in the agreement with the team. “I was ahead in or after turn one”, he insisted (the overhead camera shows he nosed ahead of Leclerc after turn one, just before they passed beneath the Pirelli bridge).

Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Ferrari had a plan…
Binotto was vague about the exact detail of the arrangement, but clear in the team’s interpretation of Vettel’s obligation: “Looking at the start our judgement [was] that the start went as planned and therefore we thought it was right to ask Seb to swap the positions.”

On the second lap after the Safety Car came, Ferrari told Vettel to “let Charles by”. But Vettel resisted, urging the team to let him stay ahead while they extended their lead over Hamilton.

Vettel certainly has previous when it comes to refusing instructions from his team – the ‘Multi 21’ row at Sepang six years ago being one of the most infamous. But so do other drivers.

At other teams, however, senior team staff quickly get involved when one driver isn’t doing as they are told, or has to be told something they don’t like. This was the even case at Ferrari one week earlier, when deputy race director Laurent Mekies smoothed over the situation when Leclerc objected to a strategy which left him stuck behind Vettel.

But no senior figure came on Vettel’s radio to tell him to do as he was told. Even when, having argued against the first two orders to let Leclerc by, Vettel stopped replying to the team’s instructions.

Leclerc had been told Vettel was going to pull over for him and was sitting in his slipstream, wondering when it was going to happen. At one point Vettel told the team to make his team mate “close up” before they switched positions. In response he was told Leclerc was now 1.4s behind and that he should let him by. This was the point at which Vettel went silent.

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The swap that wasn’t

Sebastian Vettel, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
…it worked all the way to the exit of turn two
The team took the hint. “We are moving to Plan C,” they advised him.

On the face of it, ‘Plan C’ was to bring Leclerc in first while Vettel was left out long enough that he would rejoin the track behind his team mate. This is exactly what happened – Ferrari couldn’t have timed it more accurately.

If this was all there was to Ferrari’s plan it would make a degree of sense. The arrangement for the start of the race appears to have been well-intentioned but ill-conceived, though without knowing its full extent it’s impossible to be certain. Forcing Vettel to give up the lead through the pits was a tough call, but a step any team has to be prepared to take if they are going to make such arrangements.

But on Sunday evening Binotto threw that explanation into doubt by denying the team had used the pit stops to put Leclerc back into the lead. “The undercut was not for the reason of giving back the position to Charles,” he insisted.

As Vettel retired immediately after coming out of the pits behind Leclerc, it’s impossible to know exactly how Ferrari were going to make good on their promise to ‘give back the position to Charles’.

Were they expecting Leclerc to need another pit stop, after which Vettel would have to let him by? That’s extremely unlikely, as it would have dropped them behind the Mercedes. Were they going to see if Vettel overtook Leclerc on the track, then tell him to let his team mate by? That’s scarcely any easier to imagine.

It’s more likely Ferrari were gambling Vettel would be incapable of passing Leclerc and were going to explain away the change of positions in the pit stops the same way they justified depriving Leclerc of victory in Singapore: That it was for the greater good of the team. Binotto said the reason Vettel was left out longer was to decrease the chance of the team losing out to Mercedes because of a Safety Car period.

Of course that ended up happening precisely because of an electrical fault on Vettel’s car failure, which prompted a Virtual Safety Car period under which Hamilton made his pit stop and came out ahead of Leclerc. Whether Vettel’s power unit had a sense of irony or karma depends on your point of view…

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Mercedes luck in

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Vettel’s VSC handed Hamilton the lead
One person who did appreciate the irony, and remarked as much on television, was Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff. But afterwards he admitted Ferrari’s latest driver management headache was “a side story from today” and not what won them the race.

Starting the race on the medium compound tyres, which allowed Hamilton to stay out long enough to benefit from the VSC period, was “crucial”, he said. “One of the things that we were looking for or that we were hoping for was a late Safety Car. The medium was able to extend their stint. And that’s what happened, caused by their car failing.”

Wolff selects his words with great care. “Their car failing” was a pointed choice of phrase at a time when Ferrari’s prancing horsepower is overwhelming the output from Mercedes.

The team were doubly fortunate, for having gained the lead thanks to the VSC, they gained a one-two when Leclerc pitted during a subsequent Safety Car period and fell behind Valtteri Bottas. He switched to a set of soft tyres, a decision he justified out of concern he would be vulnerable doing a restart on cold medium tyres. This seems a bit of a stretch – it looked rather more like a gamble to make up places by attacking on soft tyres which failed to come off.

So Hamilton led home Bottas and Leclerc, the latter deciding he couldn’t better the race leaders bonus point-winning fastest lap. The Red Bulls came next, Max Verstappen having found it harder than expected to make his way through the midfield following his five-place grid penalty.

Alexander Albon again made some impressive passes as he made amends for his qualifying crash by bagging fifth place. Having muscled his way by Pierre Gasly, he took Sergio Perez at the restart, then moved by the two McLaren drivers as well.

Carlos Sainz Jnr, McLaren, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Sainz was back in the points
McLaren continued to reassert themselves in their fight with Renault, and are now 33 points ahead of their engine supplier after Carlos Sainz Jnr took another ‘best of the rest’ sixth place. Lando Norris was unlucky to lose a place to Kevin Magnussen under the VSC, but was nabbed by Perez after Albon passed him.

That meant Perez took seventh but Norris was promoted to eighth after Magnussen was given a penalty for failing to negotiate the run-off area correctly at turn two. The Haas driver fumed over what he called a “bullshit” penalty, while team principal Guenther Steiner said it was the decision of a “stupid, idiotic” steward.

Despite an intermittent power unit problem Nico Hulkenberg used DRS to pass Lance Stroll for the final point. around the same time Pierre Gasly slipped behind team mate Daniil Kvyat and Kimi Raikkonen, the latter recovering from a jump start penalty. It wasn’t a great first lap for Alfa Romeo: Antonio Giovinazzi carried race-long damage after being involved in a three-way collision which put Romain Grosjean in the wall and also forced Daniel Ricciardo to retire.

Williams’ poor season continued. After George Russell went out in a crash which appeared to have been caused by a problem with his car, the team retired Robert Kubica’s FW42 to save parts. They did this on the 28th lap of 51, which raises the question why bother starting the race at all if you’re going to retire just after halfway.

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Vettel’s high-stakes game

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Sochi Autodrom, 2019
Mercedes extended their unbeaten streak in Sochi
Hamilton’s ninth win of the season makes his coronation as champion seem increasingly inevitable. Even if one of the Ferrari drivers had won all of the last four races, which was certainly possible, both would still be championship outsides.

The fight at Ferrari is all about supremacy within the team. Vettel and Leclerc both know their title hopes are done for 2019, but the team’s rate of progress bodes well for next season, and now is about asserting themselves over the other.

Vettel’s decision to disobey the team’s instruction is not hard to understand in the heat of the moment. But given how strongly Ferrari condemned Leclerc’s mild complaints on the radio in Singapore, how will they respond to Vettel’s outright act of defiance?

Vettel played a high-stakes game on Sunday. When his car finally let him down he directed his frustration at his power unit. “Bring back the fucking V12s” he muttered before jumping clear of the cockpit.

Does he associate the V6 hybrid turbos with every season which has passed since his last championship triumph? Probably. Does he miss the raucous noise of normally aspirated F1 engines? Sure.

But Vettel had plenty of other frustrations as well yesterday. Not least the knowledge he’d repeatedly defied his team in a bid to win a race he was doomed not to finish.

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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27 comments on “Hamilton triumphs as Ferrari’s micro-management backfires”

  1. Here is a proposal for liberty on how to improve the show: All drivers and teams need to use the same frequency for the team radio. We get inter-driver mid-race banter! everybody wins!

    1. @mrboerns oh, if iRacing taught me anything is to always mute radio communications! the cries you hear…

    2. The age and maturity level of some of the guys on the grid at the moment it would sound like a Fortnite lobby and mostly be un-broadcastable!

  2. “But you know what came to my mind…Go Go Squeeeeezzz”ūü§£ūü§£

  3. OK, so there was a plan, but Vettel was faster of the two, so they should have scratch it all and just let them go. Neither is going to win the Championship this year…let them race and see what happens.

    1. Thats not the way how that team operates. Its in their dna to screw up.

    2. That was my reaction too. Once Vettel was in the lead and was pulling away from Leclerc it was fairly obvious Ferrari’s planing was flawed. Anyway, now Charles knows what the consequences of just letting Sebastian pass him are: team orders mean nothing.

      1. He stitched his teammate in Spa and Monza a favour which was returned to him in Russia and started whining about it. He is probably worse than Vettel and certainly not a man to accept to reap what he had sown.

        1. What is with this nonsense. Leclerc came out first in that second run at Monza Q3. It was Vettel who then passed Leclerc and then they all got stuck in traffic. Besides in the first run Vettel did NOT give a tow to Leclerc either. Leclerc was behind someone else.

  4. The fight at Ferrari is all about supremacy within the team.

    Exactly. I wonder to what extent Ferrari’s plan to contain Hamilton was actually a plan to contain their drivers, not only from fighting on track at the start, but also to keep them effectively locked in to a Leclerc win? Maybe Vettel saw their plan in the same way and broke it for that reason. Leclerc wanted pole (as did everyone) because, well, you get poll status, fastest driver. But the reality at Sochi is that you need to fight hard to keep P1 down the long straight. Ferrari may have wanted not only to avoid a fight that could see Hamilton benefit most, as at Monza last year when RAI qualified ahead of Vettel, but also determine the entire race. If Vettel was compelled to give P1 back at some time in the first stint, everyone – Leclerc, Ferrari and himself – would know that the chances of him winning the race were slight. The best chance to win is precisely at the start. So basically Ferrari were asking him to hand over the race. Maybe as compensation for Singapore and recognition of Leclerc being fastest in qualifying and so ‘deserving’ of the win? Whatever the case, an unnecessary mess.

    1. I think we can all agree that Leclerc didn’t take the inside line because the plan was obviously to get Vettel in P2 ahead of Hamilton. As they had predicted, if this tow worked too well, then Vettel was supposed to give the position back.

      Even if one can argue that Leclerc’s tow was unnecessary because Vettel had a great start, Leclerc didn’t defend the racing line on purpose because of the agreement. To swap was therefore the right thing to do.

      Vettel clearly reneged on his agreement and Ferrari had to intervene causing all this drama.

      1. An obvious premise of the plan is that the two Ferraris would pull away from Hamilton at the start, being on the faster tire. But this didn’t really happen. And soon it was clear that there was going to be a real race in the final laps with Hamilton going long and possibly Bottas playing blocker. The swap was out of the question from the off. They fact that they kept demanding it from Vettel made the team look foolish.

      2. Look back at the replays. Vettel did not have a “great” start. His start was identical to that of Leclerc.

        Also look at how Sainz almost blew past Hamilton because Sainz got the tow from Vettel.

        Now think what would have happened if Leclerc had taken the inside line and covered Hamilton. Hamilton would have gotten the tow. Vettel would have had none.

        Ferrari nailed it with their strategy. It worked perfectly. Apart from the fact that they forgot that Vettel is such a poor team player.

  5. I’m Singapore, the rub of the green wasn’t with Leclerc, so he didn’t get the win – and that’s all it was, nothing controversial about it.

    This race, Leclerc simply wasn’t quick enough to catch Vettel in order to be let by, which also isn’t controversial.

  6. Why isn’t the title “Ferrari gifts victory”. Bad strategy, bad luck. I guess the title doesn’t fit the title. Not bias.

    1. Your personal bias you mean ?

  7. I am not a Ferrari fan, but didn’t Leclerc presume that Vettel would let him by latter in the race so why destroy his tyres fighting for a lead he expected to inherit. As a long time fan of Lewis , I just thought he was playing the long game so as to compete with my boys medium tyres.

  8. Great summary Keith.

  9. I think this just highlights how well the Mercedes team is run, they face all of the same issues as other teams yet have managed to dominate F1 for several seasons. Even now with Ferrari arguably having the better car and two very good drivers. They are susceptible to even relatively minor issues wrecking their strategies.
    Merc is still getting the best overall results, they have a large amount of redundancy that enables them to cover mistakes /miscalculations. That short of a sudden and unforeseen implosion will see them wrap up the WDC and the WMC well before seasons end.

    1. Remember spanish grand prix when nico and Lewis collided, yeah right “mercedes managed really well”.

      Mercedes were lucky no other teams were a threat to them during Nico and Lewis era.

      1. He’s definitely forgotten the Nico and Lewis era
        Right now everything is going well because they have a lead driver and a ‘wingman’ capable of doing enough to get enough 1-2s for the WCC

  10. This may be a weird question but… I wonder if Vettel ever had a choice to not agree to taking the tow. Ferrari would not allow it because it would give Hamilton a chance.

    There is also no reason for Vettel not takings tow as a race driver. You don’t take the tow, you are disadvantaged. You take the tow, you are in the “agreement”.

    So basically if you are P3 and your teammate P1, you won’t get to win based on the qualify outcome.

    If i was Leclerc, i would also just stay to the left and let my teammate pass. Easy start, will get the position back.

    1. You put it across well.

      Why so many fans (my sensing is 50/50 based on comments on this website) cannot see this is something which I can’t understand.

      If this is related to “results at all cost even personal honour and dognity” – it is bone chilling.

      1. Agree with you both. As a race fan this is how insee it as well. Ferrari wanted the 1-2 so didn’t want their guys to race. Let’s see how the rest if the races pan out.

        Keith.C- can you do a short article on when the title and wcc will he wrapped up? I hear some ppl saying by Japan if merc does a 1-2 with ham leading.

  11. Leclerc is having no merit in his driving skills and moral values as a human being. He is only street boy.
    2 or 3 races can win each driver with any car under certain circumstances.
    He should respect Sebastian for all his f1 experience and 4 world champioship titles.

    1. Well Leclerc gives Vettel the respect he deserves. That doesn’t stop him from crushing Vettel with his on track performances.

  12. 5 races left, Merc 162 ahead, Ham 107 ahead (except Bottas). Max constructor points per race = 25+18+1 = 44. Max driver points = 26.

    So the Constructors ‘ championship is a bit more open, at least in theory, but if Merc increase their lead by 13 points at the next race, they’re champions.

    Hamilton, on the other hand, only needs to not drop more than 3 points to Leclerc at the next race to guarantee a Merc driver wins the title. As things stand, it would take several DNFs for Hamilton to lose it – the maximum he could need to be certain to win is 23 points from 5 races.

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