Ferrari ought to remember the lessons of Prost and Mansell
Team should know the perils of legislating the order in which drivers complete laps, and by extension, the race
“Team orders” in Formula One are about as acceptable to devotees as electric engines, but pulling rank is in sharp focus after the first three races of the season.
It cuts back to the question of whether F1 is a team sport, or whether it is the drivers who command the requisite affection, and thus the currency, to drive the sport forward.
The team on the horns of this dilemma is the sport’s grand old lady, Ferrari. It is likely to run into turbulent air if it doesn’t revise the orders, tacit or otherwise, under which its drivers Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc operate.
Vettel, a four-time world champion with Red Bull, is the senior, with 21-year-old Leclerc the newbie desperate to go places, quickly. In the first three races it was clear that Vettel received preferential treatment when he and Leclerc occupied consecutive race positions.
After showing searing pace in preseason testing in Barcelona, Ferrari somehow could not translate that to race day when the championship got underway in Melbourne. With the Mercedes drivers disappearing in the distance, Leclerc ignored team orders to hold position, instead whizzing past his more celebrated teammate.
In Bahrain, the pace was with the pole-sitter, Leclerc, and although he lost the lead into the opening corner he quickly regained it, only for mechanical failure to rob him of a maiden win.
By the time they arrived in Shanghai, for the jamboree of F1’s 1,000th race last week, there was more than just a suspicion that Leclerc was the faster driver. Vettel, however, out-qualified Leclerc but lost third place to his teammate. Having made no inroads into the Mercedes drivers’ lead, Leclerc was ordered to let Vettel past. The young gun complied but his request to get the position back later fell on deaf ears.
Leclerc’s track position left him vulnerable to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who with a shrewd earlier pit stop was able to come out in front of the dispirited Ferrari driver. Leclerc’s army of young fans will argue their man in effect sacrificed two positions in giving up third place to Vettel.
It has left Ferrari in a pickle, despite its attempts to be decisive on the matter. The sport’s moral code demands that rules fly over the halo when teammates start disputing track positions. Ferrari, perhaps more than any other team, should know the perils of legislating the order in which drivers complete laps, and by extension, the race.
Ferrari has always been guided by its own code, and favouring one driver over another has burnt them in the past. A year after his near fatal crash, Niki Lauda in 1977 developed a tetchy relationship with Ferrari, which seemed to favour teammate Carlos Reutemann. It is a bit of a PR disaster when your world champion driver walks out, even before the season is out.
By the time Didier Pironi joined Gilles Villeneuve at Ferrari in 1981, the team was regaining its competitive edge. The pair was well matched, and at the 1982 San Marino GP they were wheel to wheel into the Rivazza and Variante Alta. Pironi ignored team orders and the lead changed hands several times. Pironi won a tempestuous race but their duel is the stuff of legend.
Villeneuve would not speak to Pironi and they did not have time to make peace before the former died in qualifying at the Belgian GP less than two weeks after San Marino. Pironi, who led the championship, would not race in F1 again following his crash at the German GP later that year.
In 1990, reigning champion Alain Prost joined Ferrari, much to the chagrin of Nigel Mansell. The Brit felt he was treated like the No 2. Mansell even suggested in his autobiography that his car was switched with that of the Frenchman at the 1990 British GP. Mansell left Ferrari at the end of that season.
Fast forward to this season and it is clear Ferrari potentially has a combustible problem of internal making on its hands. It seems straightforward. Leclerc has the pace, Vettel the pedigree, and they should be left to do what they did the first time they climbed into a go-kart.
Having gone without a constructor’s title since 2008 and having not produced a championship winner since the year before that, Ferrari is desperate to reclaim the top step on the podium. If Ferrari is true to its real mission it will rid both Vettel and Leclerc of reins on race day.