Ferrari should have been celebrating a fourth straight victory after the Russian Grand Prix. The Italian team not only handed victory to Mercedes on a silver platter, but it spent the evening of the race explaining and defending its controversial and clumsily-executed team orders between Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc.
Our F1 editors Laurence Edmondson and Nate Saunders join columnists Maurice Hamilton and Kate Walker in answering the biggest questions in F1 right now.
Was Sebastian Vettel right to question Ferrari’s team orders in Sochi?
LE: Yes, but he should have done it in the pre-race strategy briefing and not on the track. It was clear that as soon as he agreed to giving the place back he lost his best chance of winning the Russian Grand Prix. He may not have been popular if he’d resisted the plan in the briefing, but better to have that discussion behind closed doors than over team radio.
NS: I liked it, it felt a bit like Red Bull-era Seb from the ‘Multi 21’ era. We don’t know exactly how the meeting went down before the race but I find it hard to believe Vettel left there having misunderstood what was agreed. Seemed like some power-play politics going on.
MH: I wouldn’t say he was ‘questioning’ the team orders; he was stretching their meaning to suit him — which is what racing drivers do. It was a classic example of how drivers will agree on a plan while sitting in a briefing session and then see it from a purely selfish angle — but without going against their view of the letter of the agreement — when the competitive juices take over during the race.
KW: Tough one… Seb was quicker than Charles by the end of the first few laps, but a deal’s a deal. Still, anyone who thinks honour and a competitive spirit lie side by side in Mr Vettel doesn’t remember Malaysia 2013. You obey those who sign your pay cheques, IMHO.
Is there any hope of Leclerc and Vettel having a frictionless relationship at Ferrari?
LE: It’s only taken four races of having a race-winning car for things to turn sour. It seems Vettel is still angry about what happened in Monza qualifying when Leclerc ‘accidentally’ failed to give him a tow. If we know one thing about Vettel, it’s that he holds a grudge. Just think back to his time at Red Bull with Mark Webber – one of his arguments for the Multi-21 controversy was Webber making life difficult for him in the season finale in Brazil the year before. I can see this one getting worse before it gets better.
NS: No chance. This was supposed to be Vettel’s team but Leclerc has come in and stamped his own mark on Maranello. Winning at Monza was a massive moment. Vettel isn’t just going to roll over and let it happen.
MH: It’s not going to get any easier for Mattia Binotto, that’s for sure. There’s a fascinating dynamic emerging; the older, craftier guy doing all he can to maintain his status against the younger one who everyone knows is quicker. You get the impression Vettel’s actions were a sort of payback for Leclerc and the tow that didn’t happen during quali at Monza. If in any doubt about what to expect, Leclerc and Binotto should ask Mark Webber about Seb and ‘Multi 21’. Leclerc seems capable of doing exactly the same. Good luck with that one, Mattia…
KW: No, but was there ever? I can’t stop thinking about Arrivabene (or was it Mattiacci?) talking about the foolishness of putting two roosters in a hen house. Drama is inevitable.
Should the Sochi Autodrom stay on the F1 calendar?
LE: Purely from a circuit-design point of view? No. If F1 is going to increase the quantity of races then it needs to make sure it also has quality circuits. The Sochi circuit was retro-fitted to the 2014 Winter Olympic Park and that leaves very little scope for inventiveness in track design. At the very least, F1 must learn from the failings of Sochi.
NS: Please see my only tweet from during the Russian Grand Prix for my answer.
This circuit is just awful.
— Nate Saunders (@natesaundersF1) September 29, 2019
MH: It’s a tricky race track from a technical point of view; the approach to Turn 13 worthy of any decent F1 venue. But there’s no point in having cars race around a challenging race track if there’s no one there to watch it. The World Athletics Championship in Doha is a sad example of that. It would be no loss if went.
KW: No. It’s a pain to get to, both physically and financially, the racing isn’t great, and the city itself is a terrible advert for Russia. Bring on St Petersburg, and the sooner the better.
What’s your verdict on Alexander Albon after his first four races at Red Bull?
LE: Better than Pierre Gasly, some way off Max Verstappen. Mistakes will happen, especially when you move a rookie between teams mid season, but in the races Albon has shown skill and determination. The raw speed is there, he just needs a full pre-season next year to adapt to the car.
NS: I have been very impressed, especially with how he responded to his Q1 crash in Sochi, getting back to fifth. You could argue he is doing the minimum that you would expect right now, but given how he was parachuted in — and the fact Gasly was so off the pace — I think that’s a great job so far.
MH: Very impressive. Sunday’s race was a good example; Red Bull – and not even the censorious Dr Marko – could surely find fault with coming from the pit lane to P5. He couldn’t have done more. If Gasly was kicked back downstairs because he couldn’t overtake, Albon has ticked that box with some hard-nosed moves. And he’s not far off Verstappen’s pace, which says a lot in itself.
KW: The boy done good. It’s a high pressure role, and he’s acquitted himself well. Nothing stellar, but solidly confident and with potential to keep improving. Those Spa overtakes were something to behold, and (so far) he’s only finished where the car should — 5th or 6th.
Has McLaren made the right decision going back to a partnership with Mercedes?
LE: From a pure engine perspective, yes. But I’m intrigued by Renault’s proposal of having the two teams share resources to close the gap to the big three. Nothing like that has ever been tried in F1 before (possibly for good reason) but it would have been fascinating to watch.
NS: McLaren is making some great moves right now. Andreas Seidl seems like an inspired choice to lead the F1 team and even if Ferrari is ahead in terms of outright power, Mercedes is the standard-bearer for an engine manufacturer right now for what it’s done recently.
MH: Probably. It’s the final piece in the impressive rebuilding of a team that was in a shocking state. McLaren know the score with Mercedes — and vice versa. In the long term, much depends on what’s decided for the 2021 technical regs. Even if, in the unlikely event of a major change to the power units, it’s a safe bet Mercedes AMG HPP will be on the case better and faster than anyone else.
KW: Absolutely. If they’re going to finish behind their supplier (as customer teams generally do), then why not go for the best available supply? It’s not as though Ferrari was an option.
How early do you think Lewis Hamilton will wrap up his sixth title?
LE: I’ll go with Mexico. Hamilton needs to outscore Valtteri Bottas by seven points at the next two races to achieve that — my money is on him outscoring Bottas by at least 14!
NS: You know deep down Formula One wants it to be Austin, but I can’t see Bottas keeping the fight going that long. Mexico City for the third straight year.
MH: There’s five races left and no hurry. Ferrari are finally doing – or threatening to do – what we needed from the start of the season but they’re a long way back. Barring a dnf or two – which would go against the run of Mercedes play so far – Lewis could have it done after Mexico.
KW: I had a fiver riding on Mercedes sealing the constructors’ title in Singapore, so whatever I guess will probably be wrong, but I’ll go with Mexico. It’s a much better city for Sunday night celebrations than early closing Austin.