SAKHIR, Bahrain — Sebastian Vettel says Ferrari’s decision to tell teammate Charles Leclerc to hold position behind him at the Australian Grand Prix was not a « strong team order » and was overplayed in the media.
Leclerc closed on Vettel in the closing stages of the season-opener in Melbourne but when he asked if he could attempt a pass for fourth place, his engineer told him to back off. The two drivers were on different strategies, with Vettel nursing a set of medium tyres after pitting early on lap 14, while Leclerc was pushing on a set of hard tyres 14 laps younger. The difference in pace was clear to see, although Leclerc’s lap times were not quick enough to make up the gap to Max Verstappen in third place by the end of the race.
Ferrari made clear ahead of the season that Vettel would be given preference in 50/50 situations and the radio message to Leclerc was seen as proof the team was favouring the four-time world champion.
« Well I think from the team’s point of view it was quite clear that fourth and fifth was the best result we could get, » Vettel explained when asked why the order had been given. « Obviously you never see completely what’s going on at that point in the race, both of us had to manage quite a lot to make it to the chequered flag. We still had some fuel to save, so it’s not the first time… and obviously it depends if you have anybody in front or behind, but it’s not the first time that people have asked to freeze the race there and make sure you bring home the points.
« You can understand that. I don’t think this was a strong team order. I can see for you and people there’s quite a lot of excitement in these kind of things, maybe there’s a story, but internally it was pretty straightforward. »
Team orders are a sensitive subject in Formula One and Ferrari has often been accused of altering the outcome of races by favouring one driver over another. The most famous example came at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix when Rubens Barrichello was ordered to give the lead of the race to Michael Schumacher to help bolster the German’s championship points tally. That incident led to a ban on team orders, which Ferrari fell foul of in 2010 when Felipe Massa was told, via a coded message, to let Fernando Alonso past for the lead of the race.
When Vettel was asked if No.1 status at Ferrari added any extra pressure on him to prove he was quicker than Leclerc, he added: « Yeah, I think if you want to win you always have to justify it, you always have to prove that ultimately you can go faster than the others.
« So I think it’s part of competition, it’s part of all of our lives that we grew up with. I think everyone — maybe some less or some more, but every one of us has a huge ambition to go faster than the other guy around. »
But Vettel said his relationship with his new teammate is still good.
« Yeah it’s fine. I think we are still very fresh so it’s not that much of a relationship yet, but we are both working in the same direction and we’re both keen to do the best we can on track. « We’re both keen to make the car faster so up to now it’s been pretty straightforward. He’s a very young and talented kid so I’m sure he will leave his mark this year and in the next years to come. »