The 2019 Formula 1 season has featured intrigue from the off. Many driver changes, brought on predominantly following Daniel Ricciardo’s shock switch to Renault, has added an extra bit of spice to this year’s story. One team, in particular, has had a dynamic that has been fascinating to watch, with starlet Charles Leclerc replacing the compliant Kimi Raikkonen to partner four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. It hasn’t transcended into all-out war, yet, but the ebb and flow of the intra-team rivalry has major narrative in itself.
Ferrari was expected to be the team to beat in 2019, based off of a very impressive winter testing. However, come Australia, it became apparent very quickly that this was not the case. Mercedes, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas looked impeccable early on in the season and duly swept the opening five races. As the season has progressed, Red Bull – at least in Max Verstappen’s very capable hands, has challenged on occasion, before Ferrari managed to come back strong after the summer break – sweeping pole positions since then and winning three of the five races since the Belgian Grand Prix.
But things have not always been too rosy between the drivers. While Vettel was deemed number one by the team pre-season, Leclerc ignored team orders as early as round two. Indecisiveness on the pit wall cost precious points to Mercedes and to Verstappen in many of the early rounds, as the pair often found themselves tripping over each other. In the mid-part of the season, following Vettel’s controversial Canadian GP penalty, the gap was notably huge in Leclerc’s favour on a regular. But this came after a run of races in which Vettel was definitely stronger than his young team-mate.
After the summer break, this battle has become political, and the absolute brutality of the pair has become apparent to see. Leclerc failed to give Vettel the tow at Monza, Vettel made benefit of an exceptionally powerful undercut in Singapore, while Vettel continued this run by ignoring team orders at Sochi leaving the team to force him to give up the lead, which he felt he rightfully earned, to Leclerc. As Ferrari’s season has started to come strong in this late stage, it does pose the question as to whether a championship challenge was actually realistic or not.
Unusually, the gap between the pair has often oscillated between huge gaps in qualifying. At the start of the season, Leclerc would normally be right on the pace from Q1, but Vettel would often be on top by Q3. This role has totally reversed after Canada. But instead of the gap often being a tenth here or there, there have been some numbers well over half a second in either driver’s favour. It has started to stabilise itself a little bit in recent races, notably with Vettel getting back on top at Suzuka.
That Leclerc has been on top of Vettel – unquestionably one of the strongest drivers in F1 history over a single lap – while needing to make improvements himself after his maiden season in 2018 with Sauber, is fascinating. The average has not been much, with the average being consistently between two tenths and half a tenth of a second in Leclerc’s favour across all sessions and no more than two-tenths of a second in either driver’s favour in the sessions that matter most – Q3.
* Using Austria Q2 as that’s the last relevant session instead of Q3 and omitting Italy entirely with the shenanigans going on there.
And then the mistakes must be considered. Both drivers have made a number of mistakes this season, which have cost themselves and the team a large number of points. In the meantime, runaway championship leader Hamilton has had a near-flawless season aside from a dreary German race, a broken front wing in Austria and a lockup in Italy. The table below depicts the many errors made by both Ferrari drivers through the season so far:
|Bahrain||Spin in battle and subsequent flatspots lead to spectacular front wing failure; finishes fifth|
|Azerbaijan qualifying||Crash leaves Leclerc only 10th on the grid|
|Poor first run leads onto strategy mishap by team. Starts 15th|
|Monaco race||Clips wall and gets puncture. Driving back carelessly results in too much floor damage leading to DNF|
|Canada||Forces Hamilton against the wall while re-joining the circuit. Controversial penalty costs him the win|
|Britain||Smashes into the back of Verstappen, finishes out of the points|
|Germany||Crashed out while in a position to potentially win|
|Italy||Spins on own and then proceeds to earn penalty by unsafe rejoin, no points|
|Japan||Poor start, but recovers to second||Crashed into Verstappen after poor start, finished behind two ‘Class B’ cars|
Reliability has also played a role in the dynamic of Ferrari’s season – Vettel has had three mechanical issues at important times (Austria qualifying, Germany qualifying, Russia race), and is part of the reason for him being behind Leclerc in points. That Vettel is just nine points off despite these reliability problems, despite having issues getting the car to work to his liking, despite those crucial race errors, shows that Leclerc’s season hasn’t been particularly strong either.
Ferrari has, at least on one-lap pace, had a faster car since the summer break, and has not been far off Mercedes on average across the season. Yet their drivers sit over 100 points adrift of Hamilton and over 50 behind Bottas. It is not just through strategy, reliability and the car’s characteristics that the deficit is so drastic – the drivers have both been overdriving or straight-up underperforming at various points and the bickering between the pair and this has cost dearly.
Meanwhile, Hamilton is having a quietly impressive season in which he is metronomically racking up wins, podiums and precious points. When Bottas has been stronger – and, at points, he has looked genuinely stronger than the five-time champion – he too has been untouchable. The Verstappen factor also backs this up – he sits level on points with Vettel, with two wins of his own, in a car that has no right to be so high up the standings.
We’re not at all-out war yet, and the Prost/Senna dynamic still seems a long way away, but it must be questioned how long such tension can be sustained for. Ferrari isn’t even challenging for the championship this year – it’s only race wins on offer. If Ferrari has a package finally capable of sustaining a season-long challenge to Mercedes and Hamilton in 2020, then one wonders how long it will take before the gloves come off, before we could be talking about one of the most heated rivalries in F1 history.