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Drivers run second at Ferrari

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FERRARI can be ruthless when it comes to winning, as PETER COSTER observed in the Singapore GP:

WHEN Enzo Ferrari was alive there was never any doubt his decisions were always in the interests of his “bloody red cars,” as they were called when they dominated the world’s Grand Prix circuits.

The drivers came a distant second and so it was under the lights at Singapore when Sebastian Vettel was called into the pits for a tyre change ahead of race leader Charles Leclerc.

The 21-year-old Leclerc was on his way to a third successive Grand Prix victory for the Scuderia after wins at Austria and Monza.

In normal circumstances it would have been Leclerc who would have been called in for an early tyre change.

But there is no “normal” at Ferrari.

Instead it was Vettel, who was then able to “undercut” Leclerc as he sped out of the pits on new tyres.

What happened was explained by Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto as simply the way events unfolded. “That’s racing,” he said.

To stay that Leclerc, racing towards a third successive victory, saw it differently would be an understatement.

He was quickly told to keep his head down, which he did, proving himself a diplomat as well as a future world champion for the autocratic and so often unpredictable Ferrari stable.

Scuderia, or stable in Italian, carries the Prancing Horse symbol bequeathed to Ferrari by the family of World War 1 Italian fighter ace Francesco Barraca, who carried it on the side of his plane.

Vettel was called into the pits when the Ferrari pit crew saw the Red Bull crew run out to change Max Verstappen’s tyres.

Supermax was behind Vettel and bringing in Vettel at the same time was necessary to protect his third place behind Lewis Hamilton in his Mercedes and the leading Leclerc.

What it also did was put Ferrari in a one-two finishing position. It was a ruthless strategic move that was emphasised when Ferrari’s head of strategy, who made the call, stood alongside a frozen-faced Leclerc on the podium.

Former world champion Damon Hill said everyone should remember that at Ferrari, the cars come first, not the drivers.

Or was there an element of sacrificing Leclerc to help Vettel get back his groove?

The four-time old champion had not won since last year, making uncharacteristic and sometimes dangerous mistakes.

With 22 laps to go in the Canadian Grand Prix, Vettel forced Lewis Hamilton to lift off as he ran back on to the track.

He finished the race 1.3 seconds in front of Hamilton in his Mercedes but a five-second penalty for nearly squeezing Hamilton into the barriers robbed him of the race.

When they parked, Vettel changed the markers in front of the cars to show he was the winner. The stewards failed to agree.

At the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, Vettel spun and nearly caused a catastrophe as he drove back on to the track in front of Racing Point’s Lance Stroll.

This time, he  was given a 10-second penalty and three points on his super licence. Another three points and he will be given a race ban.

Ferrari and Binotto have been conscious of the mounting pressures on their number one driver.

Enzo Ferrari was notoriously parsimonious with his drivers, but Vettel is in the final year of a three-year $150-million contract and the Scuderia wants what it is paying for.

It’s obvious, even to the hysterical Tifosi, that the German is slipping.

Getting him back on the top of the podium as well as having Leclerc in second place has helped in restoring Ferrari’s fortunes.

Leclerc looked as if he were sucking on lemons on the podium and his personal manager, Nicolas Todt, son of FIA president and former Ferrari boss Jean Todt, had plenty to say to Binotto after the race.

The exchange was in Italian but Binotto said later he told Todt, who was following him around the pits, that he knew Leclerc was “annoyed and frustrated”.

What might have annoyed and frustrated the manager was Binotto’s opinion that what happened was “a positive – if you’re a driver, that’s the right attitude to have”.

Sounds like spin, but not the sort that Vettel has been having.

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By the time Leclerc understood “the big picture”, said Binotto, “ I’m pretty sure he will understand the choice.

“It’s important for me that he’s happy as well. Happy for the team. It’s a 1-2. But obviously for him it’s a missed win, but I’m pretty sure there will be more in the future.”

Binotto said he wished that there was a bit more time for the team to enjoy its success before heading to Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix.

Will Vettel retire at the end of this season is a question being asked at each GP.

If the German champion were to retire at the end of this season, at the age of 32, who would replace him?

Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo might be a possibility.

Ricciardo left Red Bull this season when he came to realise the team was being built around the 21-year-old Max Verstappen and not him.

If Vettel were to retire from Ferrari next year, Ricciardo would be the perfect replacement.

However, breaking his contract at Renault may prove a problem with the Renault works team dropping Nico Hulkenberg next year in favour of Mercedes reserve driver Esteban Ocon.

Ocon has just turned 23 and fits perfectly with Ricciardo in pairing youth and experience.

A seat with Mercedes next year was ruled out when Valtteri Bottas was given a 12-month extension on his contract.

Ricciardo’s ability cannot be questioned. He underlined his reputation as F1’s pass-master at Singapore.

After being relegated to the back of the grid because of a technical glitch in qualifying, he fought his way to third before getting a puncture.

Like Leclerc, Ricciardo said the decision, which involved a power spike of a microsecond, was “unfair”.

But “fair” is not a word that wins races in F1.

mm

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.

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