SAO PAULO, Brazil — Since Mattia Binotto took the top job at Ferrari at the start of the season, he and his two drivers have made a point of facing the written media together after every race. The PR message was simple: whatever happens on track, we leave each round of the championship united as a team.
Compared to the fractured — and sometimes completely absent — messaging of Binotto’s predecessor, Maurizio Arrivabene, the approach has been a breath of fresh air. Ferrari has used the Sunday session as an opportunity to tackle speculation about its engine, explain the logic behind controversial team orders and clear the air should the two divers’ have a differing interpretations of events in the race. But on Sunday in Brazil, there was only one chair and microphone set up in Ferrari’s hospitality. The two drivers had been briefed by Binotto, sent to complete their obligatory interviews with TV outlets and allowed to disappear into the Sao Paulo night.
Asked by one journalist why the drivers were not present to face the media, the response was: “We prefer it like this”.
An accident a long time in the making
Sunday’s on-track collision between Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel has been brewing all year. Maranello has always been a pressure cooker for drivers, but the relationship between Leclerc and Vettel has been unbalanced since the word go. As a four-time world champion, Vettel went into the season as the natural No.1 at Ferrari and the team made clear he would get preference in 50/50 situations. There was a great deal of hype around Leclerc, but with just one season at Sauber under his belt, expectations were being kept in check.
It was clear then, and it’s still clear now, that 2019 was a no-lose situation for Leclerc: beat Vettel and you exceed expectations, fall short of Vettel and you meet them. But for Vettel, who is ten years Leclerc’s senior and has been at Ferrari since 2015, not only was there an expectation to beat Leclerc but there was also pressure to emerge as Ferrari’s first world champion in over a decade. With hindsight, the power dynamic was always rigged in Leclerc’s favour.
Over the year, the performance advantage swung between the two sides of the garage, but Leclerc’s victories in Belgium and Italy plus his seven pole positions (more than any other driver on the grid) will likely give him the edge in most post-season driver rankings. But as with any head-to-head in F1, the stats don’t tell the entire story and the praise heaped on Leclerc has clearly rankled Vettel.
After a series of team orders early in the season — mostly favouring Vettel — there were two main flashpoints in the Leclerc/Vettel relationship prior to Interlagos. The first came in the final days of a stressful European season at Ferrari’s home race at Monza. Leclerc was the man of the hour having ended Ferrari’s 2019 win drought with victory at Spa-Francorchamps one week earlier, but the chance to be the first Ferrari driver to win the Italian Grand Prix in ten years was still up for grabs.
The weekend ultimately pivoted on a farcical qualifying session in which seven drivers, including Vettel, failed to start their final lap before the clock timed out. Vettel had looked quick all weekend and was waiting for Leclerc to offer him a crucial slipstream — worth roughly 0.5s of lap time under this year’s aero regulations — when his teammate failed to live up to his side of the bargain. Vettel was left fourth on the grid and frustrated before spinning out of the race as Leclerc romped home to victory. The result had the potential to fester within the team, but the tension was lifted by a Vettel victory in Singapore two weeks later — helped significantly by a favourable strategy that saw Leclerc shuffled from the lead of the race to second place behind his teammate.
Ferrari clearly felt the relationship between its drivers was still healthy when it arrived in Russia one week later as it then enforced a bizarre pre-race agreement that would see Vettel lead the race at the end of the opening lap but be asked to give the position back to Leclerc in the opening stint. Vettel decided to ignore the second part of the agreement, leaving him in the lead of the race and Ferrari looking to pit stop strategy to give the advantage back to Leclerc. Vettel’s race ended with an MGU-K failure — inadvertently costing Leclerc victory — but the events of the opening part of the race made for another difficult post-race press session, as the drivers stared at their feet and Binotto attempted to clear the air.
And then there was Interlagos. Vettel had outqualified his teammate, looked locked on for a podium, but then had the rug pulled from beneath his feet by a Safety Car to clear Valtteri Bottas’ beached Mercedes on lap 54. Leclerc, who had started 14th due to a 10-place engine penalty, suddenly had the double advantage of closing the gap to Vettel and fitting fresh tyres that would give him an advantage over his teammate when racing resumed.
Vettel lost his podium position to the Red Bull of Alex Albon in the first corner after the restart and then had Leclerc breathing down his neck. Due to the fresh tyres, Leclerc was the faster of the two Ferraris and was able to dive down the inside of Vettel at Turn 1 on lap 66. It was a bold move from a long way back, but it compromised Leclerc’s exit from the Senna Esses, giving Vettel the opportunity to fight back on the run to Turn 4.
Leclerc didn’t make it easy, leaving as little space as possible on the outside for his teammate to squeeze by, but Vettel was significantly faster out of Turn 3 thanks to an electrical power boost he had saved in his car’s battery from the previous lap. With the roles were reversed and Vettel ahead, he then tried to shift the battle towards the inside of the track on the approach to Turn 4 to disadvantage Leclerc. Vettel’s move was legal under the rules of on-track racing, but it was undoubtedly aggressive and required cooperation from the man to his left to avoid a collision. But Leclerc was also entitled to hold his line, and as he did exactly that, the pair collided.
Watched in slow motion it’s possible to blame either driver for not giving the other enough space. But watched from Leclerc’s onboard camera at full racing speed, there appears to be little he could do as Vettel whizzed past and moved across. Vettel was the one changing his line and, given the speed that he came past, at best it was an aggressive tactic to try to lessen Leclerc’s chances of regaining the position under braking and at worst a clumsy misjudgement of his car’s position.
“We need to analyse the situation better but from what I’ve seen from in the car, I passed into Turn 1 and then on the run to Turn 4 I left a small space round the outside,” Leclerc told TV reporters. “He chose to take it, and then I left that space open but I think he tried to squeeze me a little bit towards the inside towards the end of the straight. We were very close, everything happened very quickly and we touched.”
Vettel was reluctant to go into details about the incident, but did offer a quote that suggested he may have simply made a mistake.
“We were fighting quite aggressively in the chicane [the Senna Esses], I had a lot better exit and a lot more battery left, I thought I had already got past, I don’t know why we touched but that ended both our races.”
Leclerc’s car came to a stop in the run off at Turn 4 with his right front tyre off the wheel rim, while Vettel made it as far as the infield section before peeling off the track with a left rear puncture and floor damage. The pair had enough infield between one another that there was no danger of the confrontation continuing off track, but the body language of both suggested a mixture of anger and disbelief.
“I think that what I may read or hear [about the relationship between Vettel and Leclerc] is quite different to what I may see internally,” Binotto said on Sunday evening. “It is true that in Monza it was not an easy situation to manage: they had to clarify and they spoke together face-to-face and openly. The same happened after Russia.
“But I think, overall, from the start of the season when they did not know each other, they currently have got a good relationship and they are going well together. But certainly today did not help, but I don’t see it is a drama. I see it more as an opportunity in the view of next year to clarify if needed.”
What happens next?
The next time the drivers meet will be in Binotto’s office at Ferrari’s HQ at Maranello in northern Italy. The blame game, which played out in the immediate aftermath over team radio, will be expected to be left at the door and Vettel and Leclerc will be expected to listen rather than talk. By the time they leave the room, there will also be an expectation that such an incident will never happen again.
“I don’t think it is a matter of managing the drivers here, it is a matter of recognising what have been the actions and what have been the mistakes,” Binotto said on Sunday evening. “Whether you are a driver or an engineer, whatever you are doing, recognising mistakes is important. Because that can only make you better.
“What will be important with both drivers is to understand what happened, making sure that at least — not in the heat of the moment here in Brazil, but when they will be together in Maranello — we understand what happened.
“Then it will not be for me to blame them, but them to recognise the mistake.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time two teammates have collided on track. The Haas drivers appeared to have a magnetic on-track attraction at the start of this season and Red Bull lost both its cars from last year’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix when Daniel Ricciardo rear-ended Max Verstappen. But perhaps the most famous and well-documented example of recent times was the collision between Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton at the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix.
The Mercedes drivers collided while fighting for the race and the championship, leading team boss Toto Wolff to lay down rules of engagement between the two and introduce draconian punishments for anyone who stepped over the line. Arguably it didn’t work as planned — the pair collided again in Austria and the pressure was only fully relieved when Rosberg left the team as world champion at the end of the year — but could a similar threat be held over the Ferrari drivers’ heads from Abu Dhabi onwards?
“I don’t know what Toto did, I don’t want to judge what he did and I am not interested as well,” Binotto said on Sunday. “But certainly we need to clarify in the team what is silly and what is not — what the limits of the actions are.
“When you have a crash between teammates something is broken, no doubt. But when you are free to fight, you are free to fight — and it is in the drivers’ hands how much you can take as a risk. But certainly, here today, the risk was not necessary.”
Leclerc currently has a 19-point lead over Vettel in the championship and looks set to finish his first year at Ferrari with more points, wins and pole positions than his four-time world champion teammate. That creates some big questions for Ferrari ahead of the 2020 season, in which the team is hoping to build on the momentum of the second half of this season and challenge for the championship. Rivals Mercedes and Red Bull both have harmonious relationships between their teammates, so is there a danger that Ferrari’s increasingly fractious driver relationship could prove a stumbling block in 2020?
“I’m still convinced it is a luxury [to have these two drivers] because they are both very good drivers,” Binotto said. “They both represent a good benchmark for each other and we have seen how well they have improved, and Seb in the second half was certainly very fast. So I think overall it is still a luxury.
“The fact that what happened today, I would say it is even lucky it happened this season because there will be opportunities to clarify in view of next year what is not to happen. So I’m happy to take this opportunity of what happened, to clarify for the future.”
Whether Interlagos proves to be a blessing in disguise, as Binotto suggests, will be one of the most interesting subplots of what promises to be a thrilling 2020 season. In the meantime, Ferrari has one final race in Abu Dhabi and a winter in Maranello to set things straight.