Ferrari rivalry: Fred Vasseur faces biggest test yet over brewing driver clash

Michelle Foster
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz rivalry has ignited

Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz rivalry has ignited

Having resolved Ferrari’s troubles from technical to strategy to pit stops, Fred Vasseur is facing his biggest hurdle yet as a race-winning team boss.

And that’s managing two drivers, one the future of Ferrari, the other scrambling to secure his future in Formula 1.

Feisty clashes and petty revenge cost Ferrari points in China

After Vasseur broke the news to him back in January that this season would be his last as a Ferrari driver, Carlos Sainz came out of the blocks firing as he stamped his authority over his team-mate Charles Leclerc.

On the podium in his first three races of the championship, including the victory at the Australian Grand Prix, Sainz only trailed Leclerc in the standings because he’d sat out the Saudi Arabian GP having undergone an appendectomy.

That he won in Melbourne 16 days later only added to the fairytale fight-back story that was Carlos Sainz’s early 2024 chapters.

It had a seemingly magnanimous Leclerc declaring on the eve of the Chinese Grand Prix: “I think it’s as simple as he’s doing a better job… he’s just been stronger.

“He’s driving at a very high level, which I think is great for the team. It’s great for me as well. I’ve been working a lot on that and normally when I work on points I’m quite confident on improving pretty quickly. So I’m not worried, but obviously now I need to show that on track.”

And show it he did, all signs of being magnanimous out of the window.

Racing Sainz for position in the closing laps of the Sprint in Shanghai, the Ferrari team-mates went wheel-to-wheel, there was a moment of contact, and Leclerc came out on top.

Although he stated over the radio that he felt Sainz was “racing him harder than the others”, Leclerc kept his cool post-race as he spoke of his team-mate being a “bit over the limit” as there had been contact but, he added, “to be honest, I have crossed the line also myself in the past”.

Sainz gave a semi-mea culpa as, after speaking about his dirty tyres from his moment with Fernando Alonso, he said: “I apologise if I did something over the limit but we were all racing really hard and I was trying my best to keep it under control out there.”

The Spaniard, and the rest of us, should’ve foreseen what was coming next.

Lining up sixth and seventh on the Chinese Grand Prix grid, Leclerc ahead, the Monegasque driver made it clear he wasn’t going to lose to his team-mate in another Grand Prix and ran him out wide to ensure the Spaniard couldn’t get past him at the start.

This time it was Sainz who was smarting: “I’d prefer not to comment, but it’s obviously quite clear that it cost us both positions. So yeah, it didn’t help either of us.”

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Putting ‘team comes first’ philosophy to the test

And therein lies Vasseur’s problem, positions and points are Ferrari’s bottom line and it’s a line the drivers cannot cross.

It’s fun for team-mates to fight for position, and it’s thrilling for the fans if they do so in a wheel-to-wheel battle, but under no circumstances should they do anything to hurt the team’s bottom line. Leclerc and Sainz broke that rule one apiece in China.

Had Leclerc and Sainz not squabbled in the Sprint with the Spaniard using the Monegasque driver’s car to help him make the apex, Leclerc could have fought Perez for third place.

Had Leclerc not pushed Sainz wide, which opened the door for George Russell to overtake them both, Leclerc would not have spent the better part of eight laps trying to pass the Mercedes, a job that was even more difficult for Sainz. Fourth and fifth at the line with Leclerc only eight seconds down on P2’s Lando Norris, who also ran a one-stop strategy, it begs the question of what could’ve been.

It also raises the question what steps, if any, will Vasseur take next?

He revealed on Sunday that he “didn’t speak with them” after the Sprint, leaving them to sort it out by themselves. Clearly, that didn’t work with the Frenchman now saying he “will discuss” their Sunday antics as while there was no contact, it was “not the best”.

Vasseur will walk a very, very thin line when he does have that sitdown as on the one side of the garage he has the driver Ferrari have pinned their hopes on for the future, and on the other side there’s the driver whose 2024 championship is one huge audition for a 2025 race seat… thanks to a decision Vasseur at the very least played a part in back in January.

As a team where ‘the team comes first’ has always been the philosophy, Vasseur needs to lay down the law for his drivers. After all Ferrari is the one team that until China was able to take the fight to Red Bull. The last thing the team wants is to throw away the momentum they’ve clawed through silly clashes and acts of petty revenge.

And yet somehow “play nice” doesn’t feel like it will have any impact on either driver’s mindset…

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