After another difficult time at the Portuguese Grand Prix, where Leclerc qualified and finished fourth while Vettel started 15th and came home 10th, the German expressed some frustration afterwards about his plight.
His comments to German broadcaster RTL were interpreted by some as him suggesting that the two Ferrari cars may not be completely equal. Ferrari moved quickly, however, to dispel any talk of its drivers not getting the same, as team principal Mattia Binotto made clear that there was no difference in equipment.
“Seb and Charles’ cars are identical, no doubt,” he told Sky Italia.
Vettel was pushed later on the specific issue of whether or not he thought the cars were different, and he was not entirely definitive in ruling the idea out.
“Well, I think I have to think that we have the same car and I think I trust the people around me and in the garage,” he said.
So what could be going on, and is it really feasible that Ferrari would be favouring one of its drivers and deliberately hobbling the other one?
The answer to this is actually perhaps yes to the first part and a definite no to the second.
Vettel admits his main problem with the current car is that he cannot get the performance he wants from it during qualifying on Saturday. Then, starting so far down the order, his chances of making progress on Sundays are pretty slim.
He says his qualifying woes are triggered simply by him lacking consistency and being unable to ‘feel the grip’ that Leclerc is able to do.
Looking at the qualifying gaps between the two drivers this season, it is clear that Vettel is facing more difficulties at this stage of the season than he did early on.
Here is a look at how far Vettel has been behind or ahead of Leclerc so far this year, having been outqualified 10 time out of the 12 races. The times are taken from the qualifying sessions both completed (so it will be Q1 or Q2 comparisons if one of the drivers was eliminated there).
|Austria||Leclerc ahead +0.283||(Leclerc 7th, Vettel 11th)|
|Styria||Vettel ahead –0.083||(Leclerc 14th, Vettel 10th)|
|Hungary||Vettel ahead -0.043||(Leclerc 6th, Vettel 5th)|
|British||Leclerc ahead +0.912||(Leclerc 4th, Vettel 10th)|
|Anniversary||Leclerc ahead +0.369||(Leclerc 8th, Vettel 11th)|
|Spain||Leclerc ahead +0.215||(Leclerc 9th, Vettel 11th)|
|Belgium||Leclerc ahead +0.265||(Leclerc 13th, Vettel 14th)|
|Italy||Leclerc ahead +0.708||(Leclerc 13th, Vettel 17th)|
|Tuscan||Leclerc ahead +0.534||(Leclerc 5th, Vettel 14th)|
|Russia||Leclerc ahead +0.370||(Leclerc 10th, Vettel 14th)|
|Nurburgring||Leclerc ahead +0.498||(Leclerc 4th, Vettel 11th)|
|Portugal||Leclerc ahead +0.552||(Leclerc 4th, Vettel 15th)|
Vettel and Leclerc were very evenly matched at the beginning of the season (apart from Silverstone where Vettel had a specific problem), but as the year has gone on the gap between them has got bigger.
Any suggestion, however, that this is down to Ferrari deliberately hobbling Vettel because he is on his way out is nonsense, because it would be detrimental to the team’s ambitions to do so.
Due to Ferrari’s difficult campaign so far, where it especially struggled on tracks like Spa and Monza, it has slipped down the constructors’ championship.
Right now, it is sitting sixth in the standings, and there is a huge amount of money at stake in its fight until the end of the campaign.
It is 33 points behind the third placed Racing Point with five races to go though, so still stands a chance of getting there if it can get both cars to regularly score points.
With F1’s commercial rights income paid out solely on the position that teams finish in in the constructors’ championship, then every spot that an outfit can gain is worth millions of dollars each year.
Even for a well funded team like Ferrari, the difference of around $10 million that there will be between finishing sixth in the championship and finishing third is something that makes a big difference.
The downside of it finishing sixth at the end the year is huge, so it is illogical to believe that the team would do anything to deliberately hinder one of its cars.
But there may well be alternative explanation for why Leclerc and Vettel are performing so differently even if they have in theory the same car – and that’s individual driving style.
Ever since Leclerc and Vettel have worked together, it has been an open secret that they have quite different driving styles.
Vettel is a driver who thrives when the rear end of the car is firmly planted: which explains why he was so good in F1’s blown diffuser era.
He excels when he has faith the back end is going to stick; as that allows him to harness his desire to simply brake late, turn the car, point to the exit and go.
Lacking any of that stability, especially under braking or in the exit phase, with the super heavy current F1 cars, hurts Vettel more than other drivers.
Leclerc, on the other hand, is much more traditional and more adaptable. He can hustle a car like Max Verstappen; driving around inconsistencies in handling. He also learned in his early campaign to better harness the kind of understeer characteristics that modern F1 machinery has.
Having such a difference of style between two drivers give a team two options: either to try to find a compromise that suits them both, or head down a direction that suits one of them better.
So, if you are an outfit where one of your drivers is key to your future, and one of them is leaving, it is logical that your attention will go in one direction.
On Sunday night in Portugal, Leclerc offered an interesting answer when asked about his view on the package of updates that the team has introduced over the last three races.
“I feel quite at ease with the car at the moment,” he said. “We’ve brought some updates, but they always went in the right direction for my driving style. And this helped me to perform better on tracks.”
This may well then offer the best answer as to what is happening at Ferrari right now: that the car has been developed in a direction that perfectly suits Leclerc because he is viewed as the team’s future so it makes perfect sense for its 2022 ambitions.
For Vettel, that means there may be no easy way for him to turn things around in the few remaining races this year.
But, it remains in Ferrari’s interest to try to help him as much as it can in that fight for third place and the millions of dollars that are at stake.