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Has Leclerc broken Vettel? The events of Monza would suggest so

MONZA, Italy — As the emotions abated at Monza, it soon became clear Charles Leclerc’s Italian Grand Prix victory had resulted in a seismic shift in the power dynamic at Ferrari.

Ever since the start of the year, the team had erred towards Sebastian Vettel as its lead driver — giving him preference in 50/50 situations and standing by him when he made mistakes — but after the events of Sunday, that privileged position appears to be under threat.

Usually such sweeping statements should not be made on the basis of two races, but the last two grands prix represented so much more to Ferrari than just the 13th and 14th rounds of a 21-race calendar. The importance of a Ferrari winning in Italy barely needs highlighting, but the pressure on the team to win the last two rounds has been immense.

That Leclerc took those victories — the first two of his career — should not on its own be enough to eclipse Vettel’s standing at Ferrari, but the nature and timing of those victories carried additional clout. Leclerc, who is still just 21, exhibited a potent cocktail of speed, consistency and ruthlessness — the sort present in all world champions — while Vettel was made to look like the support driver. Whether it’s a conscious decision from the top or not, it’ll be hard for Ferrari not to gravitate its efforts behind him over the rest of the year and into 2020.

Leclerc combines speed with a ruthless streak

Ever since the early design principles of the SF90 were sketched out in Maranello last year, Ferrari was inadvertently setting itself up for a fall in 2019. The basic aerodynamic concept of its car has left it without the downforce it needed to fight Mercedes at 75 percent of the races this year, leaving a very short list of circuits where victory was possible.

At the top of that list were Spa and Monza — two circuits where straight-line speed is key. Thanks partly to the same aerodynamic concept that has hamstrung Ferrari so often and partly to its class-leading engine, the Ferrari has a significant advantage on the straights all year.

But in order to win, Ferrari still needed a driver capable of getting everything from its package. Since the start of the season it has backed Vettel to be that man, but when it really mattered it was Leclerc who stepped up to the plate.

In Spa, Leclerc had a significant performance advantage over Vettel. The German was 0.7s off his teammate in qualifying and, although he ended up on an inferior strategy in the race, his fourth place finish behind the two Mercedes drivers ultimately boiled down to his lack of pace.

In Monza the situation was different. The indications from practice and qualifying were that Vettel had the pace to win this weekend had things gone his way. It looked like Ferrari might have to make a choice between its drivers, but the decision was made for them in qualifying when Vettel missed out on his opportunity to set a flying lap with an all-important slipstream and qualified fourth, three places behind Leclerc on pole. Vettel was not happy, and it had nothing to do with his personal performance.

Saturday controversy

Leclerc’s heroics on Sunday afternoon — holding off not one but two Mercedes — will rightly become the stuff of Maranello folklore. The tifosi has not seen a win on home turf since Fernando Alonso’s victory at Monza in 2010 and the gutsy nature of Leclerc’s drive made the win even sweeter. But had he not secured the victory, in the context of what happened on Saturday afternoon, Leclerc could easily have been cast as the villain at Monza.

After he took the chequered flag, there was a release of pure joy from Leclerc over the team radio. It was met by the calm voice of team principal Mattia Binotto speaking in Italian, the translation being: “Congratulations Charles! All is forgiven.”

Asked later on Sunday evening exactly what Leclerc had been forgiven for, Binotto said: “It means that whatever happened in the last days that we discussed — and it is something that will remain between us three [Binotto, Leclerc and Vettel] — at least we did a good job.

“That for me was a way of telling him that at least today we did a good job.”

The point of contention Binotto carefully danced around on Sunday evening had played out amid the chaos of the final session of qualifying. In an attempt to gain a slipstream off a rival on the final run in Q3, seven cars had missed out on a lap altogether as their jostling for position saw the session time out before they started a flying lap. Vettel was among those seven and he clearly felt Leclerc was to blame.

To give some context, a slipstream can be worth as much as 0.5s on a qualifying lap at Monza. Therefore, under the orders of their engineers, all the drivers went out on track for the final run with the intention of starting their lap behind a rival. But, of course, someone has to go first and that’s why the nine cars left the pits trying not to be the driver at the front of the queue.

Ferrari had decided to work as a team to ensure it made the most of its car’s potential at Monza and to ensure it secured pole position. Vettel would offer Leclerc a slipstream on the first run in Q3 and the roles would be reversed for the second run, which is usually the faster one. On the first run, Vettel took it upon himself to lead the pack out onto the flying lap with Leclerc in tow, sacrificing his chance of getting a slipstream in the knowledge he would get his turn on the second attempt.

Once the first run was complete, Leclerc had provisional pole and Vettel was just 0.150s behind in fourth place despite missing out on a tow. With roles reversed on the second run, there was every indication Vettel would join his teammate on the front row and, if his lap was as clean as his first one, there was a good chance the extra advantage of the tow would give him pole position.

But as the final outlap got underway and the clock counted down, no-one was keen to be the first car in line. Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz reduced the pace of the cars to a crawl as they both refused to break away at the start of the lap, and Vettel, realising time was at a premium, moved ahead of Leclerc to try and find a way past the two cars in front.

“Tell Charles to go,” he said over the team radio, but Leclerc continued to hold back.

Based on the belief Leclerc would come with him, Vettel moved past the two slow-moving cars at the front of the field. As he had done for Leclerc on the first attempt in Q3, Vettel assumed his teammate would have to accept his fate as the leader of the pack and offer Vettel a tow as the team had agreed. But when the Ferraris finally got past Hulkenberg and Sainz, Leclerc was still behind his teammate rather than going in front. Time was now critical and as Vettel got to the second Lesmo corner midway through the lap, Sainz came back past him but Leclerc stayed behind.

By the time Leclerc finally caught his teammate on the run out of Ascari and down to Parabolica, Vettel was no longer on target to start the lap in time. He tried to catch the tow of Leclerc, but his teammate’s acceleration through the final corner caught him out and he not only started too far back to gain a tow, he also crossed the start line after the clock had timed out.

In the chaos of the outlap it was perhaps understandable that Leclerc had fallen out of position, but Vettel felt his teammate had not honoured his side of the bargain.

“I thought we had spoken about it,” Vettel said after the session. “I definitely listened to what we intended to do. I think it was clear what will happen in the last bit of qualifying, I think we were foreseeing exactly what happened, but we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do and that’s why it was a mess and I didn’t get a run in the end.

“Not happy with that, but obviously a good team, which in this country, in Italy, is important. But as I said, not entirely happy because I thought it was clear what we communicated beforehand … between us internally in our team.”

We don’t know what was said in the briefing between Leclerc, Vettel and Binotto after qualifying, but it’s likely Vettel was even more forceful with his opinion there than he was with the media. The issue clearly created a degree of conflict in the team — hence Binotto’s “all is forgiven” message after the race — but speaking to the media on Sunday, the Ferrari team boss played down the impact it would have on the relationship between the two drivers moving forward.

“Yesterday was something we discussed internally and maybe there were different points of view, but that was certainly a very strange situation for everybody. More important was what Seb said, turn a page and look ahead. So it will not affect [us moving forward].

“It doesn’t mean it might not happen again, because you never know. But the spirit is, what you may do, there is something to learn, and it is more important to make sure it’s a lesson learned.”

A new Ferrari order

Yet it looks like the damage has already been done. Less than 24 hours after the qualifying incident, Vettel spun at the Ascari chicane as he chased Valtteri Bottas for third position. Only he knows if the mistake was related to the frustrations of the day before, but the outward message to rest of the world was Vettel messing up as Leclerc excelled.

Within the team, the sheer release of emotion that comes from winning at Monza far outweighed any internal disputes the day before. In terms of divergence between expectation and reality, the 2019 season has been Ferrari’s most disappointing year in recent memory – going from championship contenders in pre-season to fending off Red Bull for second place by the summer break. There were missed opportunities in Baku, Canada, Austria and Germany, leading to fears the whole season could pass without a victory.

Therefore, wins in Spa and Monza have lifted a huge amount of pressure off the team going into the second half of the season and created an 85-point buffer to Red Bull in the constructors’ championship. Leclerc is the figurehead of that success and, with the rest of the season peppered with tracks Ferrari is likely to struggle at, the team can at least cling to the successes in Belgium and Italy.

In stark contrast, Vettel finished behind the two Mercedes in Spa and out of the points in 13th in Monza. He has not won a race since the Belgian Grand Prix last year and in that time has made serious mistakes in Italy, Japan and the U.S.A in 2018 and Bahrain, Great Britain and Italy in 2019. Leclerc has not been perfect in his first year at Ferrari, but his performance in Italy gives him a free pass.

It’s hard to see how Vettel can bounce back from the past 12 months, and even if he does there’s no guarantee he can match Leclerc’s rapid ascendency. From this point onwards, Leclerc will only get stronger after securing the first two wins of his career, while Vettel — a veteran of 52 grand prix victories — is under growing pressure just to return to the top step of the podium.

Since the start of the season it has been clear that Leclerc is the embodiment of Ferrari’s future. After Monza, the future is now.

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