BARCELONA, Spain — Not for the first time this season, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto was forced to explain the logic behind some confusing calls from the pit wall at the Spanish Grand Prix, after dithering on what appeared to be a simple strategy decision.
Ferrari endured a disappointing weekend at the Circuit de Catalunya, where it failed to score a podium despite arriving in Spain with an earlier-than-planned engine upgrade. Compounding the team’s lack of race performance was another messy set of team orders to dictate the running order of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc during the race.
After Vettel flat-spotted his tyres by braking too heavily while attempting to pass the Mercedes cars into the first corner, the German driver started to hold up Leclerc for fourth position early in the race. Leclerc was help up for four laps, attempting two failed overtaking moves at Turn 1, before Vettel moved aside on lap 12 and let him through.
With Vettel struggling with his tyres, he was then placed on a two-stop strategy — matching the decisions made by Mercedes and Red Bull — while Leclerc’s swapped to a one-stop.
Complicating the strategy was that Vettel emerged from his second pit stop behind Leclerc on a faster tyre compound, meaning he was soon the one being held up. After a few laps and a number of close shaves between the pair into Turn 1, Ferrari eventually did the sensible thing and asked Leclerc to let Vettel past on lap 37. Vettel quickly opened up a gap to his teammate, proving how much time he had lost in the previous laps.
Binotto said he would have made exactly the same calls if the Spanish Grand Prix was to be run again from scratch.
« So should have we swapped earlier? I think it is never an easy decision but we as a team are trying to optimism our performance and team result at the end, » Binotto said after the race. « We’ve swapped in the past and tried to swap again today as they were on a different strategy at that stage. Should have we done it early, I think by the time you do it you need to know if the driver behind has the faster pace otherwise you are swapping and not having any result.
« It may take a few laps to assess that. On the other side Charles was fighting for third place with Verstappen because he was on a different strategy with the hard tyres, a single pit stop, so it was important for him not to lose any lap time at that stage of the race. We simply waited for the right moment and should we do it again, I am not sure if we should have done it earlier. »
Team orders have been a running theme in Ferrari’s 2019 season. Ahead of the campaign, it said it would favour Vettel over newcomer Leclerc in 50/50 situations. At the opening race, Leclerc was asked to hold station behind Vettel, but he ignored a similar request in the early stages of the Bahrain Grand Prix. At the Chinese Grand Prix two weeks later, Leclerc got ahead of Vettel at the start but was soon ordered to move over a few laps in. After being let ahead Vettel failed to show significantly better pace, forcing Binotto to defend the call on that occasion too.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff warned Ferrari after that third instance that it had opened a « can of worms » by doing so.