Ferrari drivers Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc are 'free to race'

By Andrew BensonChief F1 writer in Melbourne
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel
Charles Leclerc (left) joined Ferrari to race alongside Sebastian Vettel (right) after an impressive season at Sauber

Sebastian Vettel says he and team-mate Charles Leclerc are free to race this season - despite Ferrari saying they could favour the German.

Team principal Mattia Binotto has said Ferrari might give Vettel priority so they could avoid "mistakes you may have in an ambitious situation".

On Thursday, at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vettel said: "It is very clear we are free to race.

"Charles will do his best for himself and the team - it is the same for me."

Ferrari have failed to capitalise on situations in the past two years when they were poised to run Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton close for the titles but stumbled through driver or team errors.

Leclerc, who joins Ferrari in just his second season in F1 after impressing for Sauber last year, said: "I completely understand the decision. As in any team, there needs to be a number one an a number two in the 50-50 situation but it is my job then to turn things around.

"It is not going to be easy. I have a lot to learn but I will push for that."

Leclerc was not able to give precise examples of the sorts of situations at Ferrari to which he might be referring.

"To be completely honest, these 50-50 situations, when the time will come I will probably be let know in the car," he said. "To have any proper examples, I don't know, we will see at the first race. It is all very new to me but we are free to fight. In qualifying I can try to go faster than him which won't be easy."

Vettel said: "We are racing for Ferrari, we are trying to get Ferrari back to where we have been trying to get it back to for the last two years.

"It is a long season and it is a bit pointless at this moment to start pointing out certain scenarios."

Hamilton and Bottas also 'free to race'

Hamilton said there would be no priority given to either driver at Mercedes at this early stage of the season. His team-mate Valtteri Bottas was forced to hand a race victory to the Briton in Russia last year at a crucial phase of the season.

"We're free to race like every single year," Hamilton said. "It was said back at the factory and repeated [in a team meeting] today and that's how I like it.

"It means we both have a fair shot. It has been the same every year. It is only when it's at a point when one driver doesn't have a shot to win the championship and I think that's great."

Hamilton reiterated his view that Mercedes are behind Ferrari on performance heading into the first race of the season in Melbourne's Albert Park this weekend.

"It was quite clear, but it is difficult to know what everyone's doing [in pre-season testing]," the world champion said. "We have work to do."

Asked about the importance of winning the first race, Hamilton said: "It's a long, long season so I don't particularly feel it is the most important thing, it is about finishing races and getting as many points as you can but I am not really one for needing to stamp authority."

Vettel added: "We won't win it here and we won't lose it here. It's a long way. Hopefully we will have a strong package that carries us all the way to fight for it."

But Vettel, who won in Australia last season after Mercedes made a strategy error that handed him the race, admitted that Ferrari were in a better position heading into this season than they were in 2018.

"Last year's winter testing did not go well with us and we had some issues with the car to fix. We got a bit lucky with the safety car to grab the win. We are more prepared but we can't do better than last year's result, so it is a tough weekend ahead of us."

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