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2019 Russian Grand Prix Blog

Team orders… Rarely do they prove a good idea, and this was definitely true in Sochi on Sunday when Ferrari found themselves in a predicament caused largely by their own doing.

Let’s rewind 24 hours. On Saturday, Charles Leclerc put in a scintillating lap to take top spot. His margin of victory in Qualifying was 0.402 to Hamilton and 0.425 to Vettel. That’s superstar territory, and nobody would bet against him taking pole in any of the remaining 5 races this season.

The problem at Sochi is there’s a very long run to the first corner, so starting P1 isn’t necessarily a good thing. Cars behind can take advantage of your slipstream and Ferrari were worried about Lewis Hamilton (P2) doing just that. Therefore, their pre-race plan was for Leclerc to give Vettel (P3) a tow into the first corner and prevent Mercedes from taking the lead. Charles played out his part as agreed, but Seb got a flyer and aided by the help from his teammate, was able to take the lead at Turn 2.

It looked a perfect outcome for the Scuderia as they had worked a 1-3 position into a 1-2 and got one over on Mercedes. A few laps into the race, Ferrari instructed Vettel to swap places back with Leclerc. Presumably this had been pre-agreed should such a scenario play out. However, Vettel ignored team orders and continued in the lead. He was asked a total of three times to let Leclerc past, but the German argued that it was impossible because his teammate wasn’t getting close enough.

When quizzed afterwards Vettel said: “I don’t know what happened. I think we had an agreement. I spoke with Charles in particular before the race. I think it was quite clear, but I don’t know, maybe I missed something.”

In the end it was pit stops which allowed Ferrari to switch back the order of their two cars. Leclerc stopped four laps before his teammate, and with fresher tyres regained first place.

The race was building to be one of the best of the season, but fans were robbed of a Grandstand finish when Vettel’s engine failed on his first lap after pitting. A DNF was a cruel result in the circumstances. We’ll never know if Seb could have gone on to win this Grand Prix but his pace looked very strong. It speaks volumes that he was voted ‘Driver of the Day’ despite only completing 26 laps.

The perfect storm was complete for Ferrari when a VSC, due to Vettel coming to a standstill on track, allowed Lewis Hamilton to pit whilst leading the race. The VSC meant Lewis lost much less time than he would have under normal racing conditions and he re-emerged in P1 with fresh tyres. Worse still, George Russell crashed with a brake failure as the VSC was ending. This prompted a full Safety Car and Leclerc lost second spot to Valterri Bottas as a result.

Mercedes must have been rubbing their hands together. They had a slower car for most of the weekend but now found themselves with a 1-2 position for the closing stages of the race. Leclerc also stopped for new tyres but, try as he might, he couldn’t get past Bottas after the re-start. The Mercedes proved quick enough in the right places to keep their advantage and score maximum points.

Mercedes are no fools and will know they got luck in Sochi. “Deliciously ironic” is how James Allison described the result, as it was Ferrari who unwittingly helped them execute their race strategy and take the win.

Alex Albon also deserves a mention, who started in the pits but steered his Red Bull home in P5. He is maturing quickly and we expect to see him on the podium sooner rather than later. Carlos Sainz (P6) and Sergio Perez (P7) also both put in good shifts, scoring valuable points for their respective teams.

The F1 roadshow now moves on to Suzuka in two weeks’ time but the saga with Ferrari continues. “I still believe it’s a luxury,” said Mario Binotto on Sunday evening. “We have got two fantastic drivers.” That may be the case, but unless Ferrari learn to manage them better, we could see a full blown row develop before the end of the season.

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