There were high hopes for a tense fight for victory between Ferrari and Mercedes in the Chinese Grand Prix, but in the end the Italian team’s challenge failed to materialise - and they even dropped a position from where they started to Red Bull's Max Verstappen.
The defining moment in the Scuderia's race occurred on lap 11 when, in a move that clearly perturbed Charles Leclerc, Ferrari asked the Monegasque to give up the third position he'd taken from team mate Sebastian Vettel at the start in order to give the fast-looking German a chance to try to keep pace with the Silver Arrows.
Asked afterwards whether that was the right call, Ferrari Team Principal Mattia Binotto defended the switch, saying the Scuderia had to try everything to get on terms with the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
“It’s always difficult to judge,” he said. “What we tried at the time, we tried everything we could not to lose time on the Mercedes ahead. That was the only chance we got at the time. We tried, it didn’t work, but it was right anyway to give that chance to Seb. As a team, we did whatever we could.”
Charles Leclerc: Compromised strategy was to slow down Mercedes
Vettel ultimately wasn’t able to pull clear of Leclerc, with his team mate subsequently telling the team that he was “losing a lot of time” behind the four-time world champion. A couple of laps later, though, the picture changed again as Verstappen pitted, triggering Ferrari to pit Vettel the next lap.
When Leclerc was eventually called to the pits, he was undercut by Verstappen, dropping him to the fifth place he'd eventually finish in.
“We had the meeting,” said Leclerc after the race. “It was not an easy situation. I was obviously struggling with tyres – we both were – and at the time it felt like Seb was quicker, but being behind me for some laps, he also damaged his tyres and when he went in front, his tyres were probably also damaged.” When asked if he was satisfied with the explanation, he replied: “Yeah. I mean... yeah.”
He added: “It has not been a great race for me, but overall the weekend has not been as strong as I wanted driving. In qualifying, it was okay, but in FP1, FP2 and FP3, and also going in the race without any mileage on high fuel runs was not ideal. Overall, today was not a good day, but we’ll come back stronger.”
Binotto said he “understands the feeling of Charles” after getting the call but added: “If Charles is upset he is right to be upset. I think it’s a shame for him. But maybe next time it will be to his advantage.”
Sebastian Vettel: Ferrari 'need to be faster'
Ferrari now trail Mercedes by 57 points in the constructors’ championship, with their rivals scoring three successive one-twos to start the season. Binotto said they now had work to do to ensure they can take the fight to Mercedes in the upcoming races.
“Mercedes has been fast the entire weekend since Friday, they have been fastest in qualifying and they proved to be faster today as well,” he said. “I think what is interesting is that within two races the situation has changed completely.
"We were fast in Bahrain, two weeks after it has been the opposite. I think this is the way we need to look at the championship, each single race the cars will be different. It’s our duty and task now to turn up the cars as much as we can and make sure we are always on top.”