Formula One fails the fans again

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WHEN a faster driver is forced to let a slower team-mate pass him it is a blot on motor racing. PETER COSTER reports:

WHAT F1 fans hate to see happened in the early laps of the Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai when team orders allowed Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel to pass rookie Charles Leclerc.

What made it worse was changing places had nothing to do with the team deciding that Leclerc was too slow.

He wasn’t. The 21-year-old Monegasque driver jumped Vettel at the start and the whingeing from Vettel started soon after with the German saying Leclerc, in third place behind Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, was holding him up.

Leclerc said what anyone watching the race would have seen: “I’m pulling away from him.”

But Sebastian is a four-times world champion on about $50 million a year from Ferrari and new team principal Mattia Binotto caved in.

Binotto got his job at the Scuderia in January and while pulling back the younger driver was a bad race move, it was a good career move.

You don’t defy Seb at Ferrari, just as Mark Webber found out at Red Bull in the Turkish Grand Prix in 2010 when he and Vettel were leading the world championship and Vettel turned into him rather than let him pass.

The only consolation for Australian fans was that Daniel Ricciardo dominated the German driver in his first year at Red Bull when he won three races and Vettel left for Ferrari.

Ricciardo found himself in a similar position to Webber when he was knocked out of the Azerbaijan GP at last year by Max Verstappen.

Ricciardo, who finished seventh in Shanghai, left Red Bull because he believed the team was unfairly favouring the Dutch driver.

Fans want to see races won by the fastest driver, which at Shanghai was not Vettel, as even he had to admit when Leclerc let him slip by.

Vettel took a swipe at the media after the race, saying, “I knew the moment it was happening that I would have to face these questions.”

At least Vettel admitted, “Charles was faster everywhere,” after Leclerc was set to win the Bahrain race until energy storage problems in his Ferrari related him to third.

Leclerc had to bite his tongue at Shanghai after finishing fifth behind Vettel who finished third behind Hamilton and Bottas.

Leclerc will win races, probably this season, whereas Daniel Ricciardo is playing a longer game at Renault.

At Shanghai, Riccardo finished seventh behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

Red Bull changed from Renault power after 12 years with the French manufacturer, which is now committed to providing Daniel Ricciardo with a race-winning car by the end of next year.

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Ricciardo’s reputed $40 million a year contract with Renault ends after next year.

So does Max Verstappen’s contract at Red Bull, although he can opt out at the end of this season if Red Bull cannot provide him with a car that fulfils his expectations.

Red Bull racing manager Helmut Marko says a “performance” clause in his contract allows him to leave.

That coincides with the expiry date on Valtteri Bottas’s contract extension at Mercedes.

These options make up Verstappen’s so-called “Plan B” if the Honda engine doesn’t deliver.

Honda under motor sports general manager Masashi Yamamoto has made significant progress since last year.

But Plan B is starting to look like an “opt-out” for Verstappen, who “drove the wheels off” his car in China, according to Red Bull principal Christian Horner, and managed only a distant fourth.

The performance-based contract in favour of Super Max is likely the uncompromising deal done by his father, former F1 driver Jos Verstappen.

“Jos the Boss,” as he was known in his Formula One days in the 90s, is a man of steely resolve although lacking the driving talent of his son.

He drove in more than 100 GPs for some of the top teams and finished twice on the podium.

Shanghai provided another twist in the search for team dominance. Mercedes has now finished one-two in the first three races, with Bottas on pole in China but beaten to the first corner by Hamilton after getting some momentary wheelspin as his car ran over paint lines on the track.

That may be, but the race also showed why Lewis Hamilton is a five-time world champion who notched up his 75th career victory in China.

After Bottas won in the season opener in Melbourne, beating pole-sitter Hamilton off the line, Hamilton said his focus would be to “work on my starts”.

He did, winning at Bahrain and now Shanghai. It is the mark of a champion who knows what he has to do to win and does it.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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