So much of the narrative at Ferrari heading into the 2019 season surrounded the idea of a fresh start. New leadership, a new driver, a new approach – all centring on the idea of ‘Essere Ferrari’ – ‘We are Ferrari’.

But after Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix and the team orders debacle that played out, the cracks are appearing to show in ‘New Ferrari’. The idea of complete unity with all parties singing from the same hymn sheet is a far cry from what we saw play out in Sochi.

Ferrari’s ambition to beat Mercedes and make up for the early-season struggles has seen it get creative in terms of strategy and approach. That much was clear in Singapore, when it sacrificed Charles Leclerc’s win chances to gun for a one-two finish, pulling the plan off perfectly (even if it ruffled some feathers).

And so come Russia, when once again, Ferrari surprised itself by emerging as the quickest team, it once again looked at every possible tactic or detail. Sebastian Vettel struggled to P3 in qualifying as Lewis Hamilton split the Ferrari cars, prompting the team to turn to pole-sitter Charles Leclerc to try and help out his teammate.

A pre-race agreement was struck with the view of getting the cars into P1 and P2 on the opening lap. While the plan worked, it also put Ferrari in the awkward position of trying to enforce team orders with a driver who was clearly quicker than his teammate, giving him reason not to give up the place.

It descended into farce very, very quickly.

The thinking behind the plan was admirable. Yes, running P1 and P2 gives you far, far more control over a race than having a rival – especially Lewis Hamilton in a Mercedes – in-between.

But why wasn’t there faith in Vettel and Leclerc – clearly two of the most talented and capable drivers on the grid – to get that job done themselves? To know not to fight each other and compromise each other’s race into Turn 2? To battle hard but fair as teammates and settle things themselves on-track instead of requiring team orders?

The difficulty of managing two alpha drivers is one most team bosses will embrace. Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said after the race it was a “luxury” having two top drivers on his books, even if it resulted in situations like Sunday.

It was a situation Mercedes chief Toto Wolff could sympathise with. “It’s very difficult to manage drivers that have the aspiration of winning the race,” he said. “We have had that in the past, and we still have it. We still have to discuss all of the scenarios, be aware of how the driver functions and respect it.”

But Sunday proved that there is such a thing as overmanaging drivers. Ferrari tried being too clever, only to then miss the eventual scenario where Vettel took the lead and was then quicker than Leclerc, leaving it stuck on how to swap the drivers around again.

The end solution seemed to be the call to pit Leclerc early and give him the undercut on Vettel, only for Binotto to deny this after the race. “Charles stopped because he had worn tyres, his left-rear was starting to be worn, so it was the right moment for him to pit,” Binotto said. “We knew as well that if we had stopped both our cars there, we would have been vulnerable on Safety Cars by giving the lead to Hamilton, so we tried to stay out as much as we could with Seb, simply to protect in case of Safety Cars later in the race.

“Charles was ahead, Seb was behind, but the race was still not over and there would have been plenty of opportunity to decide with them what would have been the best option later on.”

Assuming the race ran as normal, Vettel would have been pushing to make up a three-second deficit to Leclerc with tyres that were four laps fresher. What would Ferrari have done then? Giving its drivers the freedom to race may have seemed risky, much as it was in Singapore. But telling Vettel to hold station and essentially gift Leclerc the win purely for helping him with a tow into Turn 2 would surely have been even harder for the German to take than the earlier calls.

The party line from Ferrari after the race was that no-one had broken protocol, and that it was pointless considering hypotheticals given Vettel’s retirement and Leclerc’s fall to P3 after the resulting Virtual Safety Car. Vettel and Leclerc remained very tight-lipped, refusing to give views either way. Publicly, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, signalling that matters will be resolved internally.

Where does Ferrari go from here? Clearly, the SF90 has made a big step forward with the Singapore update, putting the team back in contention for victory at most, if not all, of the remaining circuits.

With no championship to play for, it may be wise to give Leclerc and Vettel the freedom to fight each other without these kind of tactics, stressing the bottom line that Vettel made clear in Singapore when he said “the team is bigger than myself, bigger than any individual”.

That may be a way to restore some of the trust that will have been knocked in Russia. Because no matter what the overall message is coming out of the team, we are starting to see some cracks in the Essere Ferrari mantra.

 

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