There was, at the end of a thrilling Italian Grand Prix on Sunday, a sight to boil the blood of every Ferrari fan throughout the world. Lewis Hamilton after taking victory and Valtteri Bottas following his ‘one for the team’ 3rd place, drove side by side in formation en route to Parc Ferme. Mercedes were celebrating an almost perfect afternoon and wanted to highlight their delight, just in case their rivals had missed it.
“Formation all the way home”, said Tony Ross the race engineer for Bottas. “Just to show our Italian colleagues!”
It wasn’t supposed to end that way on Sunday. Ferrari’s 61st front row lockout in their history was expected to bring home a 235th victory. The pace they’d shown in the dry not only last weekend, but throughout the Belgian Grand Prix as well, was surely too much for the Silver Arrows to find an answer to. But the best laid plans went array almost from the start and after Sebastian Vettel’s error and subsequent spin at the second chicane, allowed Mercedes to fight aggressively against Kimi and use two drivers against one to pull off the win.
As many of the Tifosi headed for the exits, Mercedes chose to press home the point that this was a weekend where reports of their demise had been greatly exaggerated. And for Lewis Hamilton, it produced a crucial turning point in the championship race. Two-thirds of the season have passed now and he has the biggest lead we’ve seen so far, 30 points, as comfortable as could be expected given how close the title fight has been this year.
Let’s just go back to Sunday’s race again though and how Kimi was pincered by the two Mercedes. Forced into a pace that would ultimately destroy his rear tyres and leave him vulnerable to attack from Hamilton in the final laps. It could have been so different of course and how were Ferrari to know that Sebastian and Lewis would tangle and their driver would lose out? But should the question be asked as to whether they should have prioritised Seb in qualifying, in order to maximise their chances of their title challenger taking pole, especially at a track where pole had taken victory in 7 of the previous 8 years?
For the record, I’m not a fan of team orders. I don’t believe that we, as fans of the sport who want to see the best racing possible, really believe that’s delivered when teams have the opportunity to prioritise one driver over another. However, Formula 1 is a team sport so why shouldn’t they be allowed to do this? The driver is just one of hundreds of individuals that go into making up a racing team, albeit a rather important part. We might not be overly enamoured with team orders but they’re allowed and they exist, not just at the front, but up and down the grid.
So with that in mind and with momentum on their side after a terrific weekend in Belgium, should Ferrari have sat down and decided that this was the race where it started to be all about Seb?
On Thursday over at Mercedes, Valtteri Bottas said he was “free to race for the win, but after Monza he expected the team to take a different view.” But Mercedes were in a different position to Ferrari and weren’t necessarily expecting the victory in Italy. Ferrari, who’s pace was dominant in the dry, surely had to maximise the opportunity to try and lock out the front row with Seb on pole and Kimi in between Sebastian and Lewis, to really hurt their rivals.
But in qualifying they stuck to the determined order of Kimi heading out behind Seb, it was Kimi’s turn this week, in Singapore it will be the other way around. Seb was looking for a slipstream behind Lewis but the team sent him out a fraction too slowly and Carlos Sainz got in the way. By the time Seb had passed the Renault on track Lewis was too far away for the German to get the benefit of the tow. That’s why we had that, “We’ll talk about this later” message on the team radio.
I was asked on Saturday night what Sebs’ best chance of winning was, and I replied that a new contract for Kimi would be a big help in that regard. I was half joking but with no new contract in the offing it seems – and the informed chatter pointing once more to Charles Leclerc’s promotion rather than Kimi’s retention – where is the incentive for him to be assisting his team mate. If he’s driving for his future, and a future away from Ferrari, why should anybody expect him to be helping Seb at this moment in time?
The situation at Ferrari with the sudden death of their president Sergio Marchionne recently, has understandably halted any discussion over their driver line up in 2019. But that discussion has been picked up now by the new president Louis Camilleri. An announcement was half expected in Monza, but despite Camilleri’s appearance at the track no decision was made, no announcement forthcoming. Only rumours that hinted more and more towards a Kimi exit and Leclerc – managed by Nicholas Todt, the son of FIA President and former Ferrari boss Jean Todt – getting the nod. That is not an environment where any driver, but Kimi especially, is going to take one for the team.
I’m not arguing however that Kimi should be retained just because it gives Ferrari a better chance of bagging that drivers championship they’ve been waiting for. His 2nd place in Monza was his 6th podium in 8 races and his 9th overall this season. I don’t see that he’s driving badly enough to warrant losing his place next season and as good a rookie season as Leclerc is enjoying at Sauber, I don’t see him as the finished article that surely Ferrari need him to be if he gets the nod for next year. You can’t expect him to be the finished article after just 14 races and any errors he makes that slide under the radar at Sauber, would be magnified at Ferrari. Why subject him to that at this stage when a promotion to Haas for instance would continue his momentum and more importantly allow him to develop at a higher level, but not THE highest level on the grid.
Sebastian’s errors, and there have been errors this season, have hindered his chances of a 5th title this season. He’s still in the hunt, but now, more than ever he needs the team to revolve around him. It sounds unfair on Kimi, of course it does, but he’s too far back to in the points tally to warrant any equal treatment, if you accept that team orders are an unfortunate necessity for Ferrari. Surely now is the time not only to put the weight of the team behind Seb, but to give Kimi another year as his reward.