The Russian Grand Prix produced plenty of political drama befitting of the country. The ugly spectre of team orders was once again laid bare with a public dispute between the Scuderia Ferrari drivers as Sebastian Vettel ignored instructions to hand the race lead to teammate and pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.
In the end Vettel retired at mid-distance with a sudden loss of power, with a subsequent Virtual Safety Car interruption allowing the Mercedes-AMG duo of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas a free pit stop and the chance to leap ahead of Leclerc to claim a 1-2 finish.
With Hamilton denying the Ferrari team a front row lockout from which it could block the Silver Arrows’ path to the lead, they needed to rely on a slipstream from Leclerc to draft Vettel (who started from third on the grid) to the front.
This was essential for the team given both Mercedes drivers were starting on the more durable Medium compound tyres, while the two Ferraris were on Soft rubber. If either Mercedes got ahead, their ability to run a longer opening stint would kill Ferrari’s prospects of a 1-2 finish.
It was apparent that there had been an agreement within the team whereby Leclerc would be the sacrificial lamb and undoubtedly lose the lead to Vettel, but that the pair would later swap positions.
The plan worked well – too well, in fact – with Vettel making a sensational start to outdrag Hamilton off the line. He tucked behind Leclerc and then took the inside line on the approach to Turn 2 to take the lead, with Leclerc slotting in behind. Job done.
The race was briefly neutralised by a Safety Car after Romain Grosjean was spat into the barriers at Turn 5 after contact with Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo. All would have to pit with damage, with Ricciardo retiring his terminally damaged car at mid-distance. Giovinazzi would finish fifteenth and last.
The Safety Car prevented an immediate switch of positions between Vettel and Leclerc, but the telephone call to Vettel came when the race resumed. The canny Vettel – who has form in ignoring team orders, with the infamous ‘Multi-21’ saga at the 2013 Malaysian Grand Prix still etched in everyone’s memories – refused, arguing that his superior start meant he would have taken the lead regardless of Leclerc’s assistance, and that his teammate was now not close enough for them to safely swap positions without risking being overtaken by Hamilton as well.
As Hamilton closed, the internecine argument became an ugly sideshow. Ferrari acceded to Vettel, informing Leclerc they would swap positions later in the race.
Despite Leclerc’s pre-event claims that he would not publicly question the team’s strategic calls after being jumped by Vettel at the previous Singapore Grand Prix, that pledge was quickly abandoned as he launched a number of pit-to-car radio complaints.
The swapping of positions occurred during Ferrari’s pit stops, with Vettel’s fractionally longer tyre change enough for Lerclerc to get the jump.
The Medium-shod Mercedes’ stayed out on track in the hope of building enough of a cushion to make their pit stops and jump Leclerc, who was now on the Medium rubber.
Vettel then retired with a MGU-K failure, ironically creating the Virtual Safety Car conditions that handed the Mercedes drivers a low-cost pit stop for Hamilton to jump Leclerc.
A later further stop for Soft tyres by Leclerc then cost him second place as Bottas swept by. Ferrari had hoped that his Soft rubber would allow him to take the fight to the Silver Arrows, but Bottas played a stout rear gunner role to the chequered flag and ensured an eighth 1-2 finish of the season for Mercedes.
“Just an incredible day for the team considering the challenges we’ve had,” Hamilton said after claiming his ninth win of the season, putting him in a seemingly insurmountable 73-point lead in the Drivers’ Championship standings over teammate Bottas. “Ferrari are still quite dominant at the moment, so it’s taken quite a special job from us today to come out ahead of them.”
As Mercedes celebrated an against-the-odds win that puts them within striking distance of claiming the Constructors’ Championship title next time out in Japan, Ferrari began a long debrief followed by an awkward media appearance with team principal Mattia Binotto flanked by his crestfallen drivers.
“The trust doesn’t change and we need to trust each other, Seb and myself,” Leclerc said in the FIA media conference before the team meeting. “Because it’s usually important for the benefit of the team in some situations to know that you can count on the other car, and vice versa. It’s very important but the trust is still here.”
Conversely Vettel pleaded semi-ignorance in a less-than-convincing performance.
“I don’t know exactly what happened there,” he said. “I think we had an agreement and I spoke with Charles before the race. I think it was quite clear. I don’t know. Maybe I missed something. I’m sure we’ll talk about it [in the debrief].”
Binotto, however, was explicit – the plan had been for Leclerc to slipstream Vettel to thwart a Mercedes threat on the opening lap and then for the drivers to swap places.
“Ideally we would have swapped back [straight away],” he said, before – perhaps publicly to keep the peace – adding: “Seb was very fast in the race. So I think every decision could have been postponed.”
While Vettel was unquestionably Ferrari’s number-one driver at the start of the season against a rookie teammate, he has been largely overshadowed by Leclerc for much of 2019. The fact that Ferrari had overcomplicated matters with the planning of the first few corners of the race would suggest that the intra-team pecking order has not been redefined, nor perhaps could they trust their drivers to simply race each other.
As Ferrari finally begins to unlock the potential of their car, a clearly ambitious Leclerc is seeking a changing of the guard while Vettel’s behaviour suggests that team orders should really only be deployed if they benefit him.
Leclerc was again diplomatic in the end, but his combative approach during the race would suggest his patience is wearing thing. Ferrari’s management has a new challenge on its hands.
Behind the leading trio came Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen, who simply did not have the race pace to keep up with the Ferraris and Mercedes runners. His cause was not helped by a grid penalty for a power unit element change that meant his early laps of the race were spent picking through the midfield.
Teammate Alexander Albon bounced back from a rather nightmarish Friday and Saturday. Having crashed out in qualifying, the team opted for further changes to his car that necessitated a pit lane start. Showing the sort of overtaking prowess that his predecessor Pierre Gasly had lacked, the Anglo-Thai driver charged through the field to finish a fine fifth.
The minor placings went to McLaren’s Carlos Sainz, Racing Point’s Sergio Pérez, Haas’ Kevin Magnussen, McLaren’s Lando Norris and and the sole Renault of Nico Hülkenberg.
|FORMULA 1 VTB RUSSIAN GRAND PRIX 2019 – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (53 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result||Pts|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||53||1:33:38.992||26|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes-AMG Motorsport W10||53||+ 3.829||18|
|3.||Charles Leclerc||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||53||+ 5.212||15|
|4.||Max Verstappen||Red Bull Racing RB15||53||+ 14.210||12|
|5.||Alexander Albon||Red Bull Racing RB15||53||+ 38.348||10|
|6.||Carlos Sainz Jr.||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||53||+ 45.889||8|
|7.||Sergio Pérez||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||53||+ 48.728||6|
|8.||Lando Norris||McLaren F1 Team MCL34||53||+ 57.749||4|
|9.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team VF-19||53||+ 58.779||2|
|10.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault F1 Team RS19||53||+ 59.841||1|
|11.||Lance Stroll||Racing Point F1 Team RP19||53||+ 1:00.821|
|12.||Daniil Kvyat||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||53||+ 1:02.496|
|13.||Kimi Räikkönen||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||53||+ 1:08.910|
|14.||Pierre Gasly||Scuderia Toro Rosso Honda STR14||53||+ 1:10.076|
|15.||Antonio Giovinazzi||Alfa Romeo Racing C38||53||+ 1:13.346|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps||Reason|
|DNF.||Robert Kubica||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||28||Withdrew|
|DNF.||George Russell||ROKiT Williams Racing FW42||27||Brakes|
|DNF.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF90||26||Power Loss||25|
|DNF.||Daniel Ricciardo||Renault F1 Team RS19||24||Damage|
|DNF.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team VF-19||0||Collision|
Points are awarded to the top 10 classified finishers on a 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 scale.
Lewis Hamilton is awarded an additional 1 championship point for posting the fastest lap of the race by a points’ finisher.
- Kevin Magnussen – who was provisionally classified P8 – was issued a 5-second time penalty for failing to correctly rejoin the circuit after running off-track at Turn 2.
Images via Mercedes-AMG Petronas Motorsport and Scuderia Ferrari