Red Bull Racing entered the 2019 season with much to prove, but it’s difficult to tell where the team stands after three hard-to-read rounds.
Nothing fires up the formula one public quite like team orders, and it’s taken only three races for the sport’s favourite subject to become a major talking point in 2019.
The F1 world collectively sighed when Ferrari ordered Charles Leclerc to move aside for teammate Sebastian Vettel just ten laps into the Chinese Grand Prix, but so clumsy was its approach to driver management that by the end of the race it had engineered itself a worse finish than it would otherwise have deserved.
The spectre of team orders being called against Leclerc had long been telegraphed, with Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto signalling that the better decorated Vettel would be the automatic beneficiary in any 50-50 situations, but that ideology was challenged by Charles’ domination of the Bahrain Grand Prix before a power unit problem hobbled his car.
The result wasn’t as important for Leclerc as the message he sent: that he should be considered Vettel’s equal.
But Binotto wasn’t so willing to declare as much, reaffirming in China that, “If there is any 50-50 situation where we need to take a decision, the advantage would have been given to Sebastian simply because Sebastian has got most of the experience with the team in F1”.
He added, however, that, “In a few races time, things may chance for whatever reason … we may change our position, no doubt.”
Leclerc’s response was unequivocal: “Overall in a team I think we need a number one and a number two, but I will make sure to change these things as quickly as possible.”
But the events of the Chinese Grand Prix brought the issue to a head. Leclerc jumped Vettel for third place off the line, but the German kept himself within a second of his teammate and soon began radioing that he could match the gradually escaping Mercedes drivers ahead.
Ferrari asked Leclerc to speed up, but when he could build the gap the team switched its drivers to allow Vettel to gallop away.
Except he didn’t.
Try as he might, Vettel was unable to build a gap over Leclerc, and with Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen closing in behind, Leclerc radioed tellingly to his engineer, “Now what?”
The decision was taken from the team’s hands when Verstappen triggered the undercut on Lap 17 and jumped Leclerc. Vettel was stopped in time to protect third place.
Ferrari extended Leclerc’s first stint to Lap 22 to give him a tyre offset advantage, but by the time the second pit stops rolled around, the dice had been loaded against him. Rather than pitting in line with Verstappen and Vettel, Leclerc was deployed as a block against Valtteri Bottas to aid Vettel’s fruitless pursuit of second place.
The pursuit was in vain, and by the time Ferrari pitted him on lap 42, Verstappen was too far up the road to catch before the flag. Leclerc was forced to accept fifth when fourth at a minimum should have been available.
The first call in Vettel’s favour was understandable. It’s not uncommon for teams to switch drivers when the following car appears faster, and Ferrari’s hand was subsequently forced when Red Bull Racing smelt weakness and exploited it.
The second call, however, which ruthlessly sacrificed Leclerc’s race to benefit Vettel’s despite there being no clear difference between each driver’s performance, is not so easily dismissed.
Ferrari insists its drivers are free to race, but it has also called team orders in Vettel’s favour at every grand prix so far this season.
On each occasion Charles was at least as fast as Sebastian, and though the Scuderia believes Vettel is the driver most likely to spearhead its championship campaign, one must wonder how long Leclerc can maintain his composure in the face of such nonsensical favouritism that is injurious to not only his own results but to those of the team as well.
“Once you start doing these things it becomes very complicated because you start to set a precedent and you’re opening up a can of worms,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff reflected. “Every team has that issue if you have two alpha drivers.”
But Mercedes, well experienced in managing two strong drivers, dealt effectively with the problem by double-stacking its second pit stops, a risky manoeuvre executed both to ensure neither driver was undercut and to guarantee neither driver gained an advantage over the other.
It was a demonstration of supreme confidence by the reigning championship-winning constructor, and on a weekend it worked hard to overcome an expected performance deficit.
This is perhaps the crux of the problem. Whereas Mercedes approached the race with a hardworking mindset borne of years of experience, Ferrari spent much of it on the back foot, surprised it lacked the pace to challenge in qualifying, caught off guard by Verstappen’s successful undercut, and unsure of how to score its optimum result.
So while Ferrari certainly has a growing driver management problem, its more significant concern is its rapidly eroding championship campaign.
We’re only three rounds in, but the team is already 57 points down on Mercedes in the constructors’ standings, with Vettel and Leclerc 31 and 32 points adrift of Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.
It’s no exaggeration to say the clock is ticking for Ferrari, because if they dither any longer, an intrateam rivalry will be the least of their problems.