Ferrari entered the Australian Grand Prix as the preseason favourites but leaves Melbourne after a baffling loss of pace and an early decision to implement team orders on its drivers.
After an aggressive pit strategy saw Vettel lose out on third place to Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in the final stint, Ferrari was forced to settle for a distant fourth and fifth. During the closing portion of the race a frustrated Vettel opened up his radio channel to ask the team: “Why are we so slow?”
Although Mercedes’ dominant pole position on Saturday had silenced the talk of Ferrari being the team to beat this year — a narrative which formed over the preseason — seeing neither red car on the podium was a genuine shock.
When asked immediately after the race if the team had given him an answer to his question, he replied: “No. Like I said we’re just slow.”
Another situation unfolded in those closing laps, as Vettel’s teammate Charles Leclerc — who had been squeezed onto the grass by the German at Turn 1 — closed in on him at a significant rate. It appeared as though Leclerc had more than enough pace to catch his teammate but his performance suddenly dropped off at the end.
The reason for that loss of pace was revealed by the following radio exchange:
Leclerc: “Should I stay behind Sebastian, yes or no?”
Ferrari: “Yes, and back off to have some margin.”
Leclerc chuckled in the post-race TV pen when told the exchange had gone viral, saying “I asked [to attack] but we had to keep positions.”
That decision follows team boss Mattia Binotto’s confirmation ahead of the season that Vettel would get priority treatment in the early races. However, it opened up another question about the team’s race strategy.
It appeared as though Ferrari would have had enough of a margin to sixth placed Kevin Magnussen to attempt to pit one of its cars for fresh tyres in a bid to claim the point for fastest lap (a new rule for 2019), which several drivers were pushing for late on. However, despite telling Leclerc not to race his teammate, the team declined to bring him in for such a stoppage. That point eventually went to race winner Valtteri Bottas and Mercedes.
Ferrari were still to address all of their issues in post-race media, with further explanations after debriefs expected to come later in the day. However, understanding the reasons for the loss of pace will be the priority for Ferrari ahead of Bahrain.