Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel had rather different interpretations of the pre-race agreement between them which led to a dispute over the Ferrari team radio during the opening laps of the Russian Grand Prix.
Leclerc started from pole position with Vettel lining up right behind him in third place on the grid. When the lights went out, Vettel was able to get a tow from his team mate down the long straight, propelling him past Vettel and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton into turn 1.
That was all part of the Ferrari plan for the start of the race. But then it appeared that Vettel was expected to surrender the lead back to Leclerc as soon as it was safe to do so – and he didn’t want to.
“The tactic was me giving the slipstream obviously for us to be one-two at the end of the straight, which happened,” Leclerc explained.
“For sure he did a great start, but as it has been said on the radio the start performance was exactly the same but after that I just stayed on the left to give him the slip stream.
“But then I don’t know, I need to speak to the team to understand the situation better.”
Shortly after the restart following a brief safety car, Leclerc was told by the Ferrari pit wall that “Sebastian will let you by next lap” – but it never happened.
Vettel appeared to be concerned that Hamilton was still too close and could pounce if the two Ferraris slowed up and got distracted by swapping the cars around.
“I would have got him anyways,” he said, after which he began to stretch out a lead over both Leclerc and Hamilton. “Let’s break away for another two laps. Let me know.”
A few minutes later Vettel received the instruction “Let Charles by”, to which he responded: “Well, tell him to close up”. But by now his gap over Leclerc had put him out of DRS range of his pursuers and there was no way for Leclerc to catch up without active co-operation from Vettel, which was not forthcoming.
“You put me behind, I respected everything,” complained Leclerc. “We’ll speak later but now it’s difficult to close the gap, obviously.”
As Leclerc continued to lose ground, the Ferrari pit wall finally had to concede that the swap wasn’t going to happen at this point: “Charles, we will do the swap a bit later on. Lewis is a bit close, and we want to push now. We will do it later. Just focus on your race. Thank you.”
“I completely understand,” Leclerc responded at the time. “The only thing is that I respected [the team plan]. I gave you the slipstream no problems. I tried to push at the beginning of the race, but I overheated the tyres.
“Anyway, it’s no problems,” he added, perhaps remembering his promise to keep his cool over the team radio in future. “[I’ll] manage the situation.”
Leclerc eventually pitted on lap 23, with Vettel staying out for another four laps on rapidly waning soft tyres before making his own stop. He came out of pit lane just behind Leclerc, but the whole dispute was made irrelevant when a technical issue with Vettel’s engine forced a retirement moments later.
“I will always trust the team,” Leclerc said when asked about the issue after the race. That neatly sidestepped the question about whether this could lead to future problems between himself and Vettel coming so soon after their similar dispute in Singapore.
“We will try to speak now. I think everything has been respect in a way, because I gave the slipstream and then we had to do the swap back which we did at the pit stop. And that’s it.”
For his part, Vettel said he was surprised about what had happened and was at a loss to explain the apparent misunderstanding with his team mate during the race.
“I don’t know exactly what happened there to be honest,” Vettel told Sky Sports F1. “I think we had an agreement. I spoke with Charles in particular before he race, I think it was quite clear.
“But I don’t know, maybe I missed something,” he shrugged. “I’m sure we’ll talk about it, but obviously it’s bitter today because we wanted to have one-two.”
Vettel said that he didn’t want to go into any more detail about the nature of the agreement or the team’s tactical strategy heading into the race.
“That’s not something I want to share, to be honest,” he insisted. “I don’t want to put the team in a bad position afterwards because somebody said something here and there.
“I know it’s not fair because I think people deserve to know so it’s not a big deal,” he said. “Sorry, but I really prefer not to [say too much] in a way.
“Obviously I was in third, Charles was in first, and we were talking about a strategy to past Lewis,” he added. “I had a very good start so there were a couple of options on the table.
“I think [we raced properly] until the pit stop in a way, because obviously I lost the lead during the stop and then the car broke down so it’s a bit irrelevant. But up to that point, that’s what did.”