Time for Ferrari team orders to lock Verstappen out of title race?


Charles Leclerc leads the F1 championship, but the threat of Max Verstappen remains. Will Ferrari force Carlos Sainz to take the often-unhappy role of No2 driver, asks Tony Dodgins?

Charles Leclerc next to an out of focus Carlos Sainz

How long until Ferrari decides it needs focus in the title battle?

Clive Mason/Getty Images

Saturday in Melbourne was a disastrous day for Carlos Sainz. A day that may have sentenced him to the supporting role at Ferrari if the inherent speed of Charles Leclerc had not already done so.

Leclerc was clearly quicker than Sainz in Bahrain and Saudi, a fact that Carlos readily acknowledged as he admitted he was not yet quite au fait with the characteristics of Ferrari’s rapid F1-75.

In a nutshell, Leclerc is aggressive and likes a ‘pointy’ car. Similar characteristics can sometimes affect Sainz’s confidence in high-speed corners. Dial them right out though, and the result can be understeer in low-speed corners, where the Ferrari is particularly strong.

At a resurfaced Melbourne, Sainz looked comparatively stronger throughout practice and was actually a mite quicker than Leclerc in Q2 before it all went pear-shaped in Q3 through no fault of his own.


No luck for Sainz in Melbourne, as his weekend got progressively worse with a red flag, steering wheel glitch and cold hard tyres

Antonin Vincent / DPPI

On his first run, he was about 200yds behind Leclerc on the road when Charles set provisional pole. Carlos had actually been a tenth up at the end of sector two but, when Fernando Alonso crashed his Alpine at Turn 11, the red flag appeared before Sainz crossed the line to complete his lap.

Compounding his problem, an electrical glitch that was finally traced to the steering wheel meant that for about three minutes before his second Q3 run, Ferrari could not fire up the car. When it did, there was insufficient time left for Carlos to complete a tyre preparation lap. He had to go for a time at the end of the ‘out’ lap with his red-walled soft tyres nowhere near optimum temperature. The result was a disastrous ninth on the grid with his team-mate firmly ensconced on pole. Even Sainz’s Q2 time would have put him on the second row…

“Beating Verstappen is tough enough without having a team-mate taking points from you.”

In terms of making progress in the race, to have that at Albert Park is about as bad as it gets, with the possible exceptions of Monte Carlo and Budapest. In an attempt to provide some overtaking, the Melbourne weekend had begun with an unprecedented four DRS zones, although one was subsequently dropped on safety grounds.

No doubt that was part of the thinking that prompted those out of position, principally Sainz, Alonso and Kevin Magnussen, to start on the hard compound Pirelli rather than the medium, which was the starting tyre of choice. Run long and hopefully overcut the medium tyre runners.

But Sainz’s weekend went from bad to worse. Again, the car did not want to fire up for the lap to the grid and this time Ferrari changed the steering wheel. The new one did not have the same switch settings and off the line Sainz briefly got anti-stall. That and the slow warm-up of the hard compound tyre relegated him to 14th on lap one and, in his haste to make up lost time, he ended up in the kitty litter on lap two.

One bad race may not be the end of the world. The race day impetuosity was hardly typical of a man who ended a streak of 17 consecutive points finishes and 31 consecutive race finishes. And, if you’re being kind, it was rooted in Ferrari’s mechanical gremlins.

Carlos Sainz goes off in a shower of gravel at the 2022 Australian Grand Prix

Sainz retired in a shower of gravel

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But, and it’s a big ‘but’, Leclerc already has a 38-point advantage over his team-mate in the championship. And, perhaps more importantly, an unexpected 46-point lead over Max Verstappen, the man who will be Leclerc’s biggest championship rival over the 23-race season. Just three races in, that cushion is bigger than either Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton enjoyed at any point during 2021! An unanticipated but delightful bonus for Maranello. It means that it would take a fastest lap-setting Verstappen six races to catch up if Leclerc finished second to him every time.

Eddie Irvine, a man with four years inside knowledge of being a Ferrari No2, told Italy’s Gazetta Dello Sport, “If I were Mattia (Ferrari team principal Binotto), I’d give very precise orders, as was the case in my day. Beating Verstappen is tough enough without having a team-mate taking points away from you.”

Irvine joined Ferrari with a very different agenda from Sainz. Eddie Jordan was his team principal who sold him to Ferrari to partner Michael Schumacher at the end of 1995. EJ says of Irvine, “He had one target and that was to make as much money as he could without spending a penny.”

Eddie Irvine sits next to Michael Schumacher at the British Grand Prix

Irvine’s target was to make as much money as he could, said Eddie Jordan


Jordan himself was never one to miss a money trick. He had Irvine under contract until the end of ’96, knew that his driver was keen to make a few bucks and, without much success in ’95, didn’t fancy being the one to pony them up. So, he attempted to place Irvine.

Jordan had, of course, given Michael Schumacher his F1 debut at Spa in ’91. He phoned Michael and suggested Irvine as a Ferrari team-mate, saying that Irv was quick, sensible, would be respectful, liked testing – smirk – etcetera.

That sowed the seed although then-Ferrari team principal Jean Todt initially had some reservations about Irvine’s attitude and nearly choked when Jordan suggested a fee of between $4-6m because it would cost him an awful lot to find an Irvine replacement… Todt, however, agreed to a meeting, at which point it became clear that sponsor Marlboro would be footing the bill anyway. And they liked Irvine from his junior days when he’d been mentored by James Hunt, even if driving may not have been top of the agenda!

James Hunt talks to Eddie irvine ahead of 1989 F3000 round at Brands Hatch

James Hunt talks to Irvine ahead of the 1989 Brands Hatch F3000 round

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Jordan was ecstatic when he sealed the deal to sell Irvine for $5m, plus space on his helmet and overalls! “It was daylight robbery and I was the one wearing the mask!” EJ says in his autobiography.

Which was when Irvine played his trump card. Feigning disinterest in the Ferrari move, he said he’d been thinking about it, didn’t fancy taking on Schumacher every fortnight, actually liked it at Jordan and was going to stay.

Jordan went apoplectic.

Well, Irvine said, if you can see your way to sharing your commission on the deal with me, I might just go. If not, no dice…

“You bastard!”

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He did go, of course, won three grands prix, had a stab at the championship in ’99 when Schumacher broke his leg at Silverstone, and parlayed his Ferrari seat into a $10m retainer with Jaguar for three years! Which did make you wonder. Either someone at Jaguar had failed to spot that it was the Schumacher Ferrari that moved indecently quickly, or else placed a somewhat top-heavy value on Ferrari inside knowledge!

Whatever, midway through the ’96 season I had cause to go to a Mugello test to interview Schumacher.

“Bloody hell, what are you doing here?” Irvine asked, as he sat in the pits during a break.

“I’ve come over to do a piece with Michael,” I told him.

“Good luck with that…,” he said. “Have you brought a sleeping bag?”

He was spot on. The interview was supposed to happen in the lunch break but Schumacher didn’t have one. He pounded round all day until the light started to fail, then went into a debrief. He emerged about 9.30pm, apologised and we did the interview in his car as Michael drove back to the hotel, my return flight long gone.

Irvine’s programme seemed altogether more relaxed. This was June and they still didn’t seem to have made him a bespoke seat. He was still using Jean Alesi’s old one… He didn’t seem too bothered though. Being a Ferrari driver was cool and no doubt the bank balance was doing nicely!

Rubens Barrichello on the podium with Michael Schumacher at the 2002 Austrian Grand Prix

Schumacher pushed Barrichello on to the top step in Austria, 2002

Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP via Getty Images

Eddie’s replacement as Schumacher’s No2 after four seasons was Rubens Barrichello, and I’ll never forget the furore in Austria in 2002. It was round six and Michael had won Australia, Brazil, San Marino and Spain. At Red Bull Ring as it is now, Schumacher’s aggressive turn-in always used to wear the right-front more than Barrichello and Rubens was often quicker there. He’d been faster in practice, taken pole and led the race, until Ferrari ordered him to move over for Michael on the last lap…

Poor Rubens’s only finish up to that point had been a second place at Imola. It all seemed so unnecessary because, realistically, the Ferrari steamroller had no opposition. The drivers were roundly booed at the podium ceremony and even Schumacher was embarrassed. He stood on the No2 step and ushered Barrichello up onto the No1. The FIA didn’t like its podium ceremony messed with and Ferrari was fined $1m for the podium antics.

On into the post-race press conference, the disapproval and jeering was even stronger among the press contingent and I’ll always remember the look of total shock on the face of Ferrari press man Luca Colajanni. As a result of this race, FIA president Max Mosley set up a working group to address the team orders issue, culminating in a ban on team orders, which stayed in the sporting regulations until quietly dropped ahead of 2011.

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The truth is, you can’t police a team orders ban. Ferrari, again, caused a furore at Hockenheim in 2010 with the infamous Rob Smedley message to Felipe Massa, “Felipe, Fernando is faster… than you. Do you understand?” In other words, Felipe, get out of the way.

In contrast to Austria 2002, which had been cynical and wholly unnecessary, Germany 2010 was fine, except that it was illegal. Alonso was Ferrari’s title contender (he ended up losing out to Vettel by four points at the final round when he got stuck behind Vitaly Petrov in Abu Dhabi), won five races to Massa’s none and was only behind Massa in the race because there’d been more grip off grid slot three, where Massa had qualified, than the front row slot where Alonso started.

What Ferrari did that day, unlike Austria, was entirely logical. It was the OTT media reaction that was not. Technically though, at the time what Ferrari did was against the rules and so they were fined again — $100,000 this time.

A Ferrari No2’s lot then, is not always a happy one. Binotto has been at Ferrari through all these times and knows how the system works. And, however much Sainz won’t want to hear it, Irvine has a point. You don’t want to be doing anything that gives the slightest help to a talent such as Verstappen.

With drivers such as Schumacher and Alonso, the superiority was clear-cut. The question now though, is whether there is a sufficient gap between the levels of Leclerc and Sainz to afford Charles unequivocal No1 status? Although, if you’re being harsh, you might argue that if there’s any gap at all, its size doesn’t matter.

Leclerc is mega talented. If anything, he underplays his own level with his decency, self-deprecation and willingness to lay blame at his own door when he is anything less than perfect.

Overhead view of two Ferraris at the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Leclerc and Sainz may be closely matched, but a fierce title battle may force Ferrari to pick its contender

Clive Rose/F1 via Getty Images

At the end of his two-year Ferrari spell alongside Vettel, Charles and Seb swapped crash helmets. Vettel wrote on Leclerc’s, “the most talented driver I came across in 15 years of F1 – don’t waste it.” Vettel added publicly, “He will be the man of the future. I hope he gets the car he deserves.”

Now it seems, he has. Where Sainz differs from some previous Ferrari drivers is that in his head he is not a No2 driver. His father is a double world rally champion and fierce competitor, and his role model is Rafa Nadal, who plays every point on a tennis court as if it is his last.

Carlos is now in his eighth full season of F1, Charles his fifth. Sainz’s 2015 debut season coincided with Max Verstappen’s, the pair team-mates at Toro Rosso. Although Max comfortably outpointed him, Carlos suffered the lion’s share of unreliability and, in their personal qualifying head-to-head, emerged 10-9 ahead – no mean feat.

When Verstappen got the promotion to the Red Bull senior team in place of Daniil Kvyat, Sainz admitted he was disappointed. “It was a big blow,” he admitted. “I always had in my mind that Red Bull wanted the ‘Max Verstappen phenomenon’ to go to Red Bull as soon as possible. And I always thought that he deserved it. But I also thought I deserved it because I was not getting outperformed or beaten that often for there to be a clear-cut difference between him and me.”

Sainz, like Leclerc, is a level-headed, decent guy, which probably explains why the pair get on so well at Maranello, despite the competitive cauldron in which they find themselves, with Ferrari’s F1-75 upping the ante even more.

Sainz is also bright and hard-working. After his first year alongside Leclerc, he said, “The way that he was driving the Ferrari in a particular way to be as quick and as fast as he’s been all year long, I’ve had to adapt myself, copy a lot of the stuff I was seeing on the data. Sometimes it was difficult to believe that it was possible to do that. It was so crazy quick that it was actually a bit shocking. But little by little I managed to get to a good level.”

Leclerc, for his part, admits that he has learned from Sainz too in terms of race and tyre management, something he’d previously identified as not exactly a weakness, but an area with room for improvement.

Some will tell you that Leclerc is a faster one-lap driver than either Verstappen or Hamilton. And yet, in his first season at Ferrari, Sainz’s average qualifying lap was within a tenth. Sainz is much more than a No2 driver in the accepted sense. Maybe that’s why his Ferrari contract extension is taking a while…