Singapore GP: Ferrari's revival comes with obvious tension
Sebastian Vettel finally achieved the victory he has needed for some time at the Singapore Grand Prix - but it came about with a healthy dose of luck and a big chunk of controversy.
The Ferrari driver's last win was in the Belgian Grand Prix on 26 August 2018; and since then his driving has been more notable for its regular errors than the speed and easy elegance that marked his four world titles with Red Bull.
Vettel's position as Ferrari number one has been threatened - if not already usurped - by his 21-year-old team-mate Charles Leclerc, and the German has faced questions about his future in the sport.
Coming to Singapore, where he has had such success in the past, offered a chance for redemption and catharsis. He got it, but not perhaps in the way he would have wanted.
'I'm not happy when I'm not delivering'
Vettel was asked after the race whether the win was a relief.
"Yes in a way," he said. "Maybe it kicks in a bit later but yeah, maybe just a confirmation that if you keep doing what you do…
"[There are] moments where you know that things are wrong and you need to make changes but lately I didn't feel that any big changes are necessary. In that regard, it's a confirmation but it's not like 'finally I can breathe again'. It's not like I felt in a wrong and bad place. I knew that I have to pull through and go through it myself."
As for answering his critics, he said: "Maybe less satisfying than you think. It wasn't like we were lacking speed or anything. Recently, I think there was nothing wrong in general. Things weren't maybe falling in place, plus obviously I messed up in the race in Monza, that's my mistake.
"I've been around now for a long, long time and yeah, it's just how the tide turns sometimes. I have the highest expectation on myself and I'm not happy when I'm not delivering what I know I can.
"Certainly I had moments this year when I was struggling to just get it out. So, I know that I can improve from there, and I can't be happy with that. But equally I know that it wasn't as bad or disastrous as maybe then people put it together."
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Did the right Ferrari win?
It remains to be seen whether this victory will do anything to stem the tide Vettel is facing in the challenge of Leclerc at Ferrari, for while he drove well to seize victory when the chance to do so was provided to him, in many ways the 'wrong' Ferrari won at Marina Bay on Sunday.
It was Leclerc who took a brilliant pole, with an extrovert and acrobatic lap in which he danced with disaster against the walls to snatch top spot from Vettel, who was ahead after the first runs in final qualifying and who also fell behind Lewis Hamilton.
And it was Leclerc who led from the start and who should have been able to control the race on a track on which overtaking is close to impossible among closely matched cars.
But Ferrari admitted to catching themselves out with what is known as the 'undercut', when a car stopping first benefits from the pace provided by fresh tyres to gain a place.
Ferrari's idea in pitting Vettel was to hopefully get him ahead of Hamilton - and at the same time to ensure the German could emerge in clear air in a gap ahead of Nico Hulkenberg's Renault, which was going quickly on fresh tyres after an early incident, and behind Lance Stroll's Racing Point.
They stopped Leclerc a lap later, expecting him to emerge still in the lead, only to see Vettel in front.
"The undercut was effectively more powerful than expected," said team boss Mattia Binotto. "We were not expecting such a big number. We thought Charles stopping the lap after would come out ahead of Sebastian."
The 'undercut' bought Vettel 3.5 seconds when normally it would be more like one to two.
In the car, Leclerc was furious, repeatedly asking what had happened and expressing his disbelief. And even as he calmed down after the race, he was still making it clear that he was not happy about it and wanted a full explanation.
Ferrari's strategy was successful, in that it turned a one-three into a one-two. But the controversy here is that it is convention in F1 for the lead car in a team to be given the strategy advantage. As Leclerc put it: "You never undercut one car with the other in the same team; this never happens."
Binotto admitted later that they had considered swapping the two cars back - although those conversations were not shared with the drivers.
"I understand Charles is disappointed," he said. "He did his best to win the race and he could have won the race. We did consider to swap. We are still discussing with the drivers whether it was the right choice or not."
Those discussions will, he made it clear, continue into this week, and it remains to be seen how it affects the obvious and unavoidable tension between the drivers - the proud, ageing champion and the man who looks on the evidence of this season to be emerging as simply quicker.
Leclerc's pole was the eighth time in a row that he has out-qualified Vettel, and to do it on a track on which Vettel has so often excelled in the past will have hurt.
In all that context, then, victory tasted sweet for Vettel. He pushed as hard as he could on his out lap, and then picked his way through the slower cars in front of him extremely well - and better than Leclerc - as he sought to consolidate his position.
But he will know that it was to a large degree handed to him - albeit accidentally - even if he was not exactly keen to discuss it afterwards.
How would he feel if the positions were reversed, he was asked?
"Not that much point giving that much thought because it wasn't that way," Vettel said. "The team is bigger than myself, bigger than any individual, and we finished one-two. For me and Charles the order is important. That is why we are here, to fight for victories. But for the team the order is not important."
At another point, he said: "You are very misled if you ever think you are bigger than this team." Was that a remark directed at Leclerc?
A couple of hours after the race, Leclerc had calmed down and was playing the team game.
"In the car it was very frustrating," he said. "Now I understand a lot more the situation. I am extremely happy for the team and extremely happy for Seb, too. He deserves it. I wish I was one step higher but it is part of life. Sometimes it goes that way and I will bounce back stronger in Russia."
What went wrong at Mercedes?
At Mercedes, it was a sobering evening under the lights. Starting second and fifth, they finished fourth and fifth, and for a team normally so slick this was a very long way from their best day.
Team boss Toto Wolff said that chief strategist James Vowles had admitted to making a mistake in not pitting Hamilton on the same lap as Vettel. When Leclerc stopped the next time around, Mercedes' only choice was to go as long as possible and try to have a tyre advantage at the end of the race.
But Hamilton's tyres did not last long enough to keep him out as long as they wanted, and the succession of safety cars in the second half of the race played into Ferrari's hands in allowing them to take the pressure off their tyres.
"I got called in too late," Hamilton said, "and it is obviously frustrating because I was all over Leclerc and easily quick enough to win and the right decisions were not made.
"In the morning, I said: 'We should undercut, even if I come out in traffic.' They were like, 'No, we shouldn't do that.' And I said, 'Just take the risk if I am close enough.
"I was right with him, within a second and said: 'Undercut, undercut.' And it just didn't happen and it was too late after that. But we win and lose as a team, if we eff up, we do it all together. It is not a good day but we live to fight another day."
The decision to keep Hamilton out not only dropped him behind Red Bull's Max Verstappen but also led to a second difficult scenario.
Team-mate Valtteri Bottas stopped four laps before Hamilton and was flying along, and was soon in danger of not only passing Hamilton, but also taking Red Bull's Alexander Albon with him.
So Vowles came on the radio and told Bottas to slow down by about three seconds a lap to ensure Hamilton came out ahead - an example of Mercedes following the convention of ensuring the lead driver's strategy advantage plays out in a way Ferrari did not.
Was this an effective explosion of the idea that the two Mercedes drivers are still competing for the title, Wolff was asked?
"No, it's not a great call we made there," he said. "The undercut was more powerful than everybody expected. I don't think Ferrari wanted to swap their drivers with letting Sebastian pit first.
"We risked Lewis's position by keeping him out to protect the win and this is why we held Valtteri back to keep Albon behind because Lewis would have come out behind Albon. So overall the team result would have been worse by not doing that. But we owe him that place."
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Should Mercedes be worried?
Ferrari's one-two came very much against expectations, and for them to be so strong on a track on which they were expected to struggle based on their performances so far on similar circuits suggests on the face of it that they will be strong everywhere for the rest of the season.
Ferrari introduced a major aerodynamic upgrade for this race, and it certainly worked. But Binotto said that on its own "cannot explain what we have seen".
Mercedes' suspicion is that Ferrari's victory was founded on setting their car up for pace over one lap - with a darty, oversteery set-up - and sacrificed race pace. Leclerc's extravagant moments on his pole lap - on which he nearly lost the car twice - suggest they might be right.
"This is not about upgrades; it is about doing the best out of your package," Wolff said. "They have a tremendously powerful engine which is an important ingredient that allows you maybe more strategic choices on set-up but this is no excuse.
"We had a package capable of pole but we made mistakes, too many opportunities lost and we are very aware of it."
Nevertheless, Ferrari have now won three races in a row, and their resurgence provides the prospect of a competitive and unpredictable end to the season in terms of individual races.
But it is hardly a threat to Hamilton in the championship - his lead is 65 points over Bottas, and Leclerc is 96 behind, with only 156 still available.
"Lewis is so strong and you are not losing sleep with his advantage," Wolff said, "but I can tell you we are all angry and we had a get-together with all the engineers and drivers and there is a general feeling of we got it so wrong this weekend. But this doesn't mean it will have a long-term impact on us.
"The mood we all feel and all felt coming together is annoyance that we lost too many opportunities and there is nobody in the team that hasn't got that feeling."
That sixth title is not far away, but that is far from meaning Mercedes do not have their concerns.