What did Ferrari do?
As the early laps unfolded in Shanghai, Hamilton was leading from team-mate Valtteri Bottas, with Leclerc third, just ahead of Vettel.
Leclerc was struggling to hold on to Bottas, but he was still just 2.8secs behind at the end of lap eight, about the time Ferrari’s team radio was broadcast asking Vettel how much faster he could go. Vettel, it transpires, had been on to the team saying he felt he could go faster.
Leclerc was asked to speed up – but the gap to Bottas started growing. Not because Leclerc was going any slower, but because Bottas was going faster. Very shortly afterwards, Leclerc was asked to let Vettel by, which he did, just after crossing the line at the end of lap 10 with the gap to Bottas out to 3.7secs.
Now the gap between the leading Ferrari and the second Mercedes was out to 4.8secs – and it kept growing. Not, this time, because Bottas was going faster, but because Vettel was going slower.
Now in front of Leclerc, Vettel could not keep up the pace his team-mate had when he was in front – he was lapping in the mid-one minute 39s, while Leclerc had generally been in the high 38s. Leclerc sat behind, just a little bit further back than Vettel had been behind him.
Vettel was pushing, and at times it looked like he might be stretching the gap. But he was also making mistakes, locking brakes, and any ground he made up he was losing again.
The gap to Bottas went up by 1.4secs over the first two laps Vettel was running third – which was when Leclerc came on the radio and asked his question – and by 4.8secs over five.
Meanwhile, Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was tracking the Ferraris, just two seconds behind, and on lap 17 his team pounced. He pitted for fresh tyres, going for the ‘undercut’ – where a faster out lap jumps a driver ahead of a driver still out on slower, older tyres.
Leclerc’s fourth place was gone – and Vettel nearly lost third, despite stopping on the next lap.
For the rest of the race, Ferrari were on the back foot against Verstappen. They strategised reactively, rather than proactively, and were made to look flat-footed. They managed to protect Vettel’s third place, but Leclerc was sacrificed as being left out on old tyres – twice – leaving him in a helpless fifth.
It must have been all the more galling for Leclerc that the second time he was left out was to be used as a blocker against Bottas, in a vain attempt to help Vettel close on the Mercedes.
What were Ferrari trying to do?
Ferrari’s approach to the race was not a surprise. Team boss Mattia Binotto has made it clear that Vettel will be given priority in “50-50 situations” because they believe “he is the driver who has got the most probability to challenge for the title”.
You can see their argument. Vettel is a four-time champion and Leclerc is in his second season. As such, they feel Vettel is the more likely to put together the stronger season, and therefore be their best chance of beating a Mercedes driver to the title.
In China, Ferrari were watching the Mercedes pull away, and their team leader was telling them he thought he could go quicker, and they thought it made sense to give him a chance to try to chase down the silver cars. It was their only possibility of winning the race.
“We simply tried to give Sebastian a go and see if we could have kept the pace of the Mercedes, which was key at that stage of the race,” Binotto said. “It was not to give an advantage to a driver, to the other driver; merely as a team to try whatever we could. The early stage was an important moment of the race.”
It was an understandable decision at the time, given the information they had. But it unravelled quickly once it became clear Vettel could not go faster.
“It was not an easy situation,” Leclerc said. “I was struggling with tyres – we both were – and it just felt like Seb was quicker. But obviously being behind me for some laps he also damaged his tyres.”
Binotto said: “It is difficult as a team to give the order because we understand the drivers and they need to stay ahead as much as they can. It was not an easy decision.
“I have to thank Charles for the way he behaves. He is again showing he is a good team player but there will be a time when the situation is maybe inverted. I think as a team we need to maximise the team points and in that respect I think we did the right choice.”
Except they did not maximise the team points – they gave some away to Red Bull. Not only in losing Leclerc the place to Verstappen, but also in failing to give him a chance to go for the point for fastest lap at the end of the race.
Vettel held it for a long time – but Red Bull pitted Pierre Gasly for fresh tyres and he just sneaked it. Ferrari could have pitted Leclerc, too, without him losing a position, and he surely would have gone faster than Gasly, who had been struggling all weekend. But they didn’t.