Formula 1 loves a good favouritism story, especially when it involves Ferrari. It was a constant theme across the Michael Schumacher-Rubens Barrichello partnership, sometimes going so far as to imply that Schumacher’s success was solely a product of Barrichello’s subservience. In fact, so much of an issue has been made out of Ferrari’s imposition of team orders that the F1 Sporting Regulations around them have been changed several times in the past two decades.
It seems this obsessions continues. From the moment Kimi Raikkonen took pole ahead of Sebastian Vettel at the 2017 Monaco GP, commentators queried whether Ferrari would somehow switch them to hand Vettel the win and maximize his chances in what is so far a close battle with Lewis Hamilton for the driver’s championship. When Raikkonen then pitted first from the lead in the race and Vettel put in enough fast laps to build a gap that enabled him to emerge ahead of his teammate after his own pitstop, commentary immediately suggested this was a deliberate tactic, even a fait accompli.
However, the evidence doesn’t support this. Raikkonen led the race; he had total control. Initially in the first stint he scampered, with Vettel settling in approximately 2s behind, out of the dirty air, with the two of them building a decent gap to Valtteri Bottas in third that crept up to 6s.
Such a gap was crucial. Due to the durability of the Pirelli tyres, there was only going to be one pitstop, and for Ferrari to ensure a 1-2 they had to be able to safely pit both their drivers over sequential laps without being leapfrogged by Bottas. Being Monaco, there was also a high risk of a Safety Car so the gap had to allow time for potential “stacking” in the pits (where both drivers pit at the same time and the driver behind has to wait).
As the first stint wore on, Raikkonen’s pace faded. Instead of him and Vettel exchanging fastest laps, Vettel began monstering the back of him – seemingly actively giving his teammate the hurry up – and the gap to Bottas first stabilized and then began to drop. Then traffic also came into play. The first driver typically suffers the most with backmarkers as they seem to need to be “woken up” to the fact that they’re being lapped. At Monaco lapping is also harder due to the tightness of the circuit so a lead driver can be stuck behind a backmarker for quite some time if they come across them at an inopportune point. Through the first series of backmarkers, Bottas had halved the gap.
Once in clear air, Raikkonen’s pace did not pick up again and Vettel was again attached to his gearbox, with Bottas creeping closer. Ferrari now had a potential problem protecting their 1-2. Although the supersoft tyres they would change to were slower than the ultrasofts, given Raikkonen’s pace, an initial two laps when the supersofts were new could have been enough for Bottas to leapfrog at least one of their drivers.
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen in fourth, clearly quicker than Bottas but unable to pass on track, decided to try to leapfrog him and went in for his pitstop. This prompted Bottas to pit the next lap. Ferrari left their drivers out. It was the right decision, because if Raikkonen exploited the supposed superior pace of the ultrasofts then they should be quicker than Bottas and Verstappen and could settle back in to controlling the race and increasing their overall gap, making it safe to pit both drivers at leisure.
But Raikkonen either didn’t or couldn’t find the pace. For those crucial couple of laps he was a touch slower than Bottas and Verstappen on new tyres, who were setting green (personal best) and purple (overall best) sectors. At the same time, the gap to Carlos Sainz in sixth was hovering right around 20s, line ball but probably not quite enough to pit and come out ahead in clean air. Raikkonen was not extending that gap, either. Ferrari’s potential problem became an actual one. They could still safely get one driver out ahead of Bottas but perhaps not both and so were in danger of losing their 1-2. If they didn’t pit at all they may lose the lead completely.
So Ferrrai had to pit either Raikkonen or Vettel immediately. The best option to preserve a 1-2 was to pit Raikkonen. He would still emerge ahead of Bottas, and with Vettel appearing to have slightly more pace in the bag he was a better option to stay out and try to build a gap so he too remained ahead of Bottas. Ferrari could not have known exactly how much extra pace Vettel had: him pushing Raikkonen indicated he was potentially faster, but not by how much.
Ferrari also prioritized the leading driver. Had they pitted Vettel, that would actually have been giving him strategic preference over Raikkonen. He would likely have emerged ahead of Bottas while Raikkonen remained out, his pace potentially resulting in him dropping back behind both Vettel AND Bottas after the pit stop. Imagine the outcry if it appeared Ferrari had sacrificed Raikkonen to third to hand Vettel the win? In actuality, Ferrari placed their world championship leader at risk of falling to third to give Raikkonen pitting priority.
Raikkonen pitted and emerged ahead of Bottas, but behind Sainz so was unable to exploit his new tyres to full potential. Meanwhile Vettel did indeed have pace – he put the hammer down and started setting fastest sectors and laps. He stayed out, which at that point he was entitled to do. But also at that stage, Daniel Ricciardo, released from behind Bottas and Verstappen, was flying. He became a factor for consideration, and Ferrari had to monitor him as well. It was only after Ricciardo pitted that Ferrari brought Vettel in.
At that stage the gap from Vettel to Raikkonen was also line ball on the time needed for a pitstop. It resulted that Vettel had done just enough that with a smooth pitstop he emerged marginally ahead. He then subsequently drove off into distance, building a 13s gap to his teammate until an incident brought out the Safety Car. Raikkonen meanwhile spent the remainder of the race falling into the clutches of, and just barely holding off, Ricciardo. The gap to Vettel can be explained by a bit of mental slump, but it’s hard to accept that he would risk even second place like that if he actually had the pace not to.
Whatever happened then, however, the evidence points to Ferrari acting to preserve their 1-2 more than it does favouring Vettel. And this situation arose because Raikkonen, who was in complete control at the front, simply wasn’t quick enough in the latter part of the first stint. It was his lack of pace that compromised Ferrari and, ultimately, his own race. If he was so demotivated that he subsequently gave up, he needs an attitude check. He has nobody to blame but himself.
Vettel simply maximized an opportunity. Even if one wants to argue that Ferrari specifically and deliberately handed Vettel this opportunity, he deserved it by virtue of being their best chance of preserving a 1-2 at the time.
Maximizing opportunities is something Vettel is known for, especially when it involves a series of fast in-laps prior to a pitstop. He did this at the 2017 Melbourne GP, emerging just ahead of Verstappen to get the clear air he needed to secure victory. Indeed, it was his astonishing in-lap at Abu Dhabi in 2010 that resulted in him coming out of the pits mere metres ahead of Kamui Kobayashi that put him in the position he needed to drive to victory and ultimately take the WDC. At Monaco, Vettel showed Ferrari that he had the pace where Raikkonen did not.
But it was far from a fait accompli. It was Vettel who used his skills to turn what looked like a certain second place (and even a risk of third) into a situation where he completely controlled the race. If there is any comparison to the Ferrari of the Schumacher era that this should prompt, it is that it is very reminiscent of the great man himself, who so often turned races that looked out of reach into ones he owned. Just as Ferrari’s faith in Schumacher was wholly justified, so too Vettel demonstrated that their faith in him is, because it was his driving that protected their 1-2, their first since (ironically) the German GP in 2010.
And if there does come a point where Vettel, like Schumacher before him, is given preference by the team to win the World Championship, it will be because he has earned it, when it becomes clear it is he who is their genuine chance of winning one.