Out With The Old, In With The New: A Changing Of The Guard At Ferrari?
“For sure this is the best day of my life. I kept saying to myself, ‘Still P1 on my board – how can it be?”
Drenched in sweat, champagne and the Monza rain, a jubilant, baby-faced Sebastian Vettel basked in the glory of one of F1’s unlikeliest wins of the 21st century. You wouldn’t know that this was the sport’s youngest race winner at the time, as he displayed a masterful control over the wet conditions well beyond his years. Almost 11 years to the day however, things couldn’t be more different for the German.
As Charles Leclerc crossed the chequered flag having seen off both Mercedes in a herculean effort, a sea of rosso corsa erupted. Few sets of fans can be as passionate as Ferrari’s tifosi, who having seen their team bested for the best part of a decade, thirsted for a win on their home track. When that finally happened on Sunday, F1 witnessed a party like it hadn’t seen in ages. Leclerc took it all in, and then some, as Monza’s partisan crowd paid respects to its new hero.
Elsewhere, another Ferrari trundled over the line more than a minute later. As Leclerc headed up to the podium to greet his admirers, Vettel sought Racing Point’s Lance Stroll, whose race he spoiled with the latest in a series of silly errors.
Everyone saw the change coming when Leclerc was announced as Ferrari’s new No. 2 after a scintillating rookie season last year. The outgoing Kimi Räikkönen had a good enough second spell with the prancing horse by all means, but with just a solitary win in five years meant that he was little more than an experienced team player, decidedly playing second fiddle to Vettel. That wasn’t going to be the case with Leclerc.
The young Monégasque sent out a warning as early as the second race in Bahrain, pipping Vettel to pole. The ex-Red Bull ace was the architect of his own downfall, making an error under pressure from Lewis Hamilton to come home in 5th. Leclerc, meanwhile, was cruelly denied a maiden win through an engine failure, but emerged from the duel in the desert with more credit to his name.
Ferrari showed it wasn’t ready for a change of guard just yet, when in the following race in China, Leclerc was asked to give his place up to Vettel mid-race, despite passing him at the start. Team orders weren’t needed for the next few races as both drivers were denied race wins under controversial circumstances; Vettel in Canada and Leclerc in Austria. The latter was fast developing a rivalry with his contemporary in Max Verstappen. Touted as future champions, both youngsters have served up some thrilling duels this season.
Despite all the promise shown in his first half-season in the big time, there has been an underlying feeling of missed opportunities for Leclerc, what with reliability issues, poor team orders and the odd rookie mistake. Speculation is rife over what must have been said to him over the summer break, but it is clear that he is a changed driver, as is his teammate.
After storming to pole at Spa in the first race back, Leclerc finally secured his first ever win. As he pointed up to the sky in tribute to former compatriot and compatriot Anthoine Hubert, who passed the day before, many noted that his victory could also be dedicated to his teammate. Vettel played a huge role in the win, holding up both Mercedes as Leclerc stretched his lead at the top, ultimately coming 4th behind the silver arrows.
If he was expecting the favor to be returned last weekend at Monza, Vettel was in for a rude shock. In a bizarre Q3, where none of the top 10 bar Carlos Sainz made the line in time due to their unwillingness to ‘punch the air’ and give a tow to the others, Vettel was seen frantically gesticulating at his partner, who refused to go on ahead having secured provisional pole. The German’s thinly-veiled sarcasm over the radio in the session’s aftermath did little to hide his fury, but having seen the gulf in class between their drivers on Sunday, who can blame Ferrari for picking sides?
Perhaps the young buck defying the seasoned campaigner is a case of the shoe being on the other foot for Vettel, as he did many times back in his Red Bull days with Mark Webber. While we haven’t been treated to a ‘Multi 21’ moment between the pair just yet, tensions are coming to a head and Ferrari need to be prepared for when they boil over.
It was in Monza five years ago that Vettel came to terms with the fact that he was firmly second-choice for his team, with then rookie Daniel Ricciardo selling him a dummy to move ahead late in the race that day. It wasn’t the first time that season that Vettel was outfoxed by his wily teammate, prompting him to eventually leave for Ferrari the season later. Now in his fifth season at Maranello and without a win in over a year, ‘Seb’ finds himself facing a similar crisis of confidence.
Time is running out for him to realize a childhood dream of following in his hero Schumacher’s footsteps and win the world championship with Ferrari.
It’s no secret that he has lost his mojo for a while now. But now it seems as if the four-time champion has all but lost the No. 1 spot at Ferrari as well. The fact that it happened in Ferrari’s home race makes it all the more humiliating. Still, he will feel entitled to answers from team principal Mattia Binotto over what Leclerc called the ‘mess’ of a final qualifying session.
In another season of relentless Mercedes dominance, enticing sub-plots seem to be grabbing the eyeballs more than the main storyline, chief among them this. Will Leclerc strengthen his grip on top spot or will Vettel fight back to claim what is his? Either way, this fight till the death is going to serve up some fireworks, and boy are we here for it.