Ferrari got it wrong at the British GP; was Binotto indecisive or a fair boss?


Carlos Sainz may have won the British Grand Prix but Ferrari missed a chance to capitalise on Red Bull's misfortunes. It was another letdown for Charles Leclerc, writes Tony Dodgins


Dan Mullan/Getty Images

Yes, it was great to see Carlos Sainz take his first pole position and debut Grand Prix victory at Silverstone but, with Max Verstappen’s race destroyed by lack of downforce after running over debris, here was a gilt-edged opportunity to make up lost ground in the championship for Charles Leclerc, their only driver with a realistic chance of taking it to Verstappen and Red Bull over the season.

Clearly, Ferrari knew that, and was trying to prioritise Leclerc. It’s just that the team went about it in completely the wrong way. It totally underestimated the late-race offset between used hard compound Pirellis and fresh softs. And failed to factor in all the information it had available.

People say, “Ahh, but it’s understandable because Leclerc was already at Stowe when Esteban Ocon’s Alpine crawled to a halt on the straight and the safety car call was made,” but that fails to take into account the banks of computers and backroom strategists that F1 teams have constantly monitoring a race. The algorithms, however, are only valuable if they are based on the right data.

The correct move as things turned out would have been for Ferrari to pit both Leclerc and Sainz. Okay, Hamilton might have stayed out and taken the lead on his fresher hard compound tyres, and Sainz may have lost another position stacked behind Leclerc, but he was already a couple of seconds down and the time loss would have been negligible.

What information was Ferrari going on? You can’t always take Friday’s long runs as an accurate barometer because average lap times are influenced by stint duration, fuel loads, engine modes, etc, but they are at least a guide. Sainz had averaged 1min 33.7sec on an FP2 soft-tyre run, largely comparable with Verstappen (Leclerc did a medium compound run that was three-tenths quicker than Hamilton on the same tyre). The interesting one was George Russell, who’d only been an average 0.4sec away on the hard compound. George also commented on how long it was taking the Mercedes to generate heat in the softs.

Related article

In the light of that, what Ferrari did made some kind of sense. Leading the race, do you hand track position to Hamilton by stopping both cars, with the likelihood of there being just nine or 10 laps to go to the chequered flag by the time Ocon is removed?

Hamilton, as at Barcelona, had already demonstrated very strong race pace in the opening medium tyre stint and had been closing the Ferraris down at the point when Sainz was still ahead of Leclerc. He had run longer before pitting for hards, which were still going to be very serviceable for any sprint to the flag.

Ferrari could no doubt envisage a scenario where it handed Hamilton the lead and then, based on those long-run times, didn’t have sufficient tyre-offset pace to pass him again. Let’s not forget, this was a man who had won seven of the past eight Silverstone races, more than once demonstrating searing pace on used tyres that had no logical right to be going that quickly. Had Leclerc lost the race that way, the team might have had some difficult questions to answer.

So, let’s leave him out, bring in Carlos for softs, and task him with keeping Hamilton / Perez behind on the same tyres, while protecting Charles on his used hards. That was clearly the plan, Ferrari confirming as much by asking Sainz to drop back the maximum permitted 10 car lengths behind Leclerc when the safety car period ended.

Carlos though, perhaps understandably, was not up for that. He didn’t fancy the prospect of driving at anything less than full beans while trying to keep Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez behind him on fresh softs.


Carlos Sainz was determined to not succumb to the same fate as Rubens Barrichello and Felipe Massa

And this is where it’s interesting. In the Jean Todt / Ross Brawn era at Ferrari, there would have been no question: do as you’re told! We’ve asked you to drop back, so do it… Remember Austria 2002, when Rubens Barrichello, in a totally dominant Ferrari team, was made to hand an Austrian victory to Michael Schumacher despite outdriving him all weekend. When Michael had already won four of the first five races and no other team was even close…

Even in the Stefano Domenicali era with Alonso / Massa, it was still the same. In that German race in 2010, Fernando had outqualified Felipe by a full half-second and was only behind him in the first place because there’d been less grip on the P2 side of the grid than Massa’s P3. That situation was entirely predictable. Enough for the team to want to tell Felipe at dinner on Saturday night that should such a situation transpire, then he needed to defer to Fernando, whose race and championship fight, was with Vettel’s Red Bull, not his team-mate.

It’s just that they couldn’t agree on who was going to tell him. Domenicali thought it would be bad for Felipe’s head to have such an instruction coming from the team principal and wanted race engineer Rob Smedley to break the bad news. Rob was less than keen. And, over dinner, it didn’t happen. Hence, in the race, the rather pointed and slightly stroppy, “Fernando is faster than YOU. Do you understand?

Back to Silverstone. Sainz had been as surprised as anyone when they told him ‘P1!’ at the end of qualifying. In truth, he was only on pole because Leclerc had spun on his final hot lap and tripped up Verstappen, who had to slow for the resultant yellow.

Related article

And yet, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto, whose long experience at Maranello dates back to the Todt era, gave Carlos every chance in the race, despite Sainz having an understeer balance and lacking pace versus Verstappen’s Red Bull early on. Then, later, with Verstappen in trouble and Leclerc clearly quicker than Sainz with Hamilton closing in on both, again Binotto did not immediately swap them around. Instead, Sainz was given a 1min 32.2sec lap time to achieve and was told that if he couldn’t do it, then Leclerc would be allowed through. Which is what happened.

If you’re being ruthless, it was on-the-spot indecisive, poor management. But, big picture stuff, maybe it was the shrewd actions of a fairer man. Would it have been right for Binotto to take a first GP win from a man who has started from pole and who you’ve just signed to a long-term contract. What does it do to his head? Better to give him a target and leave his destiny in his own hands. And, who knows, maybe Binotto, an engine man, knows that there could be more reliability issues down the line and that Leclerc overhauling Verstappen / Red Bull this time around, is a tall order anyway.

But you have to feel for poor Leclerc. Binotto got to him as soon as he got out of the car – good management – and hats off to Charles for only alluding to his “disappointment” in his post-race interviews and not having a pop at the team.

F1 Grand Prix of Azerbaijan

It’s now been two months since Charles Leclerc stood on the Formula 1 podium

The poor guy could easily have won the last five races as well as two of the first three. In Spain he led comfortably when the engine went pop, in Monaco the team strategy cost him a win, Azerbaijan, ditto Spain, in Canada a new power unit meant starting from the back but the pace Sainz showed there suggests Leclerc would likely have won without that, and then came last weekend.

You can totally sympathise with Leclerc’s frustration. If nothing else, he left us with the most memorable moment of the Silverstone weekend – an outside pass of Lewis Hamilton at Copse on old hard compound tyres versus fresh softs! Quite incredible. I can’t help feel that there’s a tiny bit of Gilles Villeneuve in Charles Leclerc. And you can see Ferrari fans growing to love him just as much.

You may also like