Vettel v. Leclerc – the fuse has been lit in Ferrari

02nd October 2019
Ian Parkes

We are all aware of the glaring anomaly in Formula 1, that it is a team sport, and yet we laud the drivers' champion at the end of every season. It does not matter whether the phrase 'There is no I in team' is drilled into a driver, when the visor is pulled down and the five red lights disappear to signal the start of a grand prix, natural human instinct kicks in, fuelling competitive desire and an innate will to win.


It is the touchpaper that has lit up many of the sport's greatest intra-team rivalries over the years, and that is suddenly salvaging a season in which Lewis Hamilton is coasting to his sixth world title.

Ayrton Senna v Alain Prost; Nigel Mansell v Nelson Piquet; Alan Jones v Carlos Reutemann; James Hunt v Niki Lauda. These are all iconic battles of yesteryear, each one containing a potent mix of behind-the-scenes rancour and grudges that often spilt over on to the track as team orders went by the wayside.


More recently we have revelled in Hamilton v Fernando Alonso at McLaren, and then the British driver's battle with Nico Rosberg at Mercedes, as well as Sebastian Vettel v Mark Webber when they were paired together at Red Bull.

We are hopefully now witnessing the makings of another classic feud, with Vettel again at its heart as he tries to come to terms with the challenge from Ferrari team-mate Charles Leclerc.


The ingredients are intoxicating as we have a four-time champion in 32-year-old Vettel trying to prove his best days are not behind him against the much younger, less experienced 21-year-old Leclerc, who clearly possesses the talent that makes you believe he is destined to win a title of his own in the very near future.

When Vettel was announced as "our champion" in pre-season by new team principal Matteo Binotto, it ensured no one was left in any doubt as to the Scuderia's number-one driver for the coming campaign.

That was evidenced in the opening race in Australia when Leclerc caught Vettel late on, only for the Monegasque to be told to hold station as they filed home fourth and fifth.

In the following race in Bahrain, after claiming his debut pole, Leclerc made a bad start and was overtaken by Vettel. Although the rising star was soon on his team-mate's tail, for two laps he was again instructed not to pass.

It was patently obvious, however, who was the quicker driver, with Vettel ultimately forced to cede position in what was a damaging blow to his status, setting the scene for what is starting to become a fractious relationship as two alpha males go head to head in the same team.


Over time, Leclerc has chipped away at Binotto's comment, aided in part by not just his own ability but a car Vettel has struggled to come to terms with this season, one that has lacked the balance required for the German's comfort, despite the SF90's power unit proving itself to be the quickest on the grid.

When Ferrari unveiled a major upgrade package ahead of the race in Singapore, that included a new floor, diffuser and rear wing, and significantly, a solution to front-wing issues that had materialised early in the season and proven complicated and time-consuming to overcome, Vettel finally had a car to his liking.


The fact he took victory at the Marina Bay Street Circuit, however, ending his 392-day winless drought, was more by strategic luck than by design as Ferrari's attempts to keep third-placed Hamilton at bay during the pit stops resulted in Vettel not only undercutting the Briton but also Leclerc who was leading the race at the time.

An unhappy Leclerc slated his team over the radio, describing their decision as "not fair", even though there was merit in the judgment as Ferrari tried to maintain its one-two status – which it ultimately did, just not in the order that was expected.

Despite Binotto's best efforts to explain away how the situation had unfolded, and Leclerc towing the party line post-race about his happiness for the team at the one-two, there was undeniable and understandable disappointment from the latter at seeing the prospect of what would have been a third successive win snatched from his grasp.


And so to Sochi, and third-on-the-grid Vettel's decision to ignore a pre-race arrangement that should he receive a tow from polesitter Leclerc on the longest run down to turn one on the calendar, given Ferrari's concern over Hamilton who was starting second, he would cede position.

Vettel, though, had other ideas. Leclerc protested and a feisty exchange of radio messages between the pit wall and both drivers ensued over the opening several laps before Ferrari finally conceded any swap would take place later in the race.

It was 'Multi-21' rearing its ugly head again when Vettel, then with Red Bull, opted to ignore team orders at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix to hold station behind team-mate Webber, instead attacking and taking a win that by right should have belonged to the Australian.

In Sochi, Vettel pitted four laps after Leclerc and emerged two seconds behind, only for his race to swiftly end on his out lap on fresh tyres due to a failure with the MGU-K.

In parking up on the side of the track, the implementation of the virtual safety car resulted in Mercedes making its pitstops with Hamilton and Bottas, securing a one-two triumph that had seemed improbable before the weekend, with a disgruntled Leclerc third, pouring fuel on the fire no doubt raging inside.

Binotto now faces arguably one of the most testing periods of his short time in office. Even Ross Brawn, Formula 1 managing director, motorsport, has suggested Binotto faces "a potentially explosive combination", one that "needs careful handling".


At Red Bull, Vettel's actions that day in Sepang sparked an irretrievable breakdown in his relationship with Webber, who quit F1 at the end of that year.

Six years on, the Vettel of old has re-emerged, but this time his incentive is far different after witnessing Leclerc steal his thunder within Ferrari. He is desperate to prove he can be a serial race winner and world champion again.

Leclerc, though, is no lapdog, and while he has so far kept his ire in check, you have to wonder how far he has to be pushed by Vettel before he snaps and we witness a tear-up on track.

Vettel will also be aware that with youth on his side Leclerc represents Ferrari's long-term future, while there is no guarantee he will be given another contract by the Scuderia beyond his current deal that expires after next season. That will be gnawing away at him.

These are fascinating, powder-keg times at Ferrari again. The fuse has been lit. Now we have to wait and see whether implosion follows.

Photography courtesy of Motorsport Images.

  • Formula 1

  • F1 2019

  • 2019

  • Charles Leclerc

  • Mark Webber

  • Sebastian Vettel

  • Lewis Hamilton

  • Nico Rosberg

  • Ferrari

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