Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel in Bahrain

Are Ferrari already on the back foot over team orders?

With three 1-2 finishes in as many races this season, Mercedes has already seemingly grabbed the 2019 season by the scruff of the neck.

It looked an unlikely scenario during pre-season testing and, indeed, during the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend, when all the figures suggested that it was Ferrari, not Mercedes, who held the upper hand in pace.

Charles Leclerc looked a certain winner in Sakhir, until a PU problem cruelly denied him victory with a handful of laps remaining. Then, in China, when Leclerc seemingly had the pace over teammate Sebastian Vettel to set off in pursuit of the Mercedes duo, he was told to hold station.

Not that Mercedes need a helping hand, but they must secretly be extremely happy with the current team orders situation at Ferrari as their drivers fight for supremacy.

“You would like the quicker car hunting down your opponents and Sebastian said he had the quicker car at that stage, and they reverted the order. I can understand that,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff is quoted on ESPNF1.

“Nevertheless, when you start doing things like this it becomes extremely complicated and you start a precedent and open a can of worms. Then you might have to call at every race that the car behind can go quicker.”

Of course, such team orders are nothing new in Formula One, even at Mercedes when Wolff himself has had to diffuse tricky situations involving Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg and, more recently, Valtteri Bottas. Yet, more often than not, the Mercedes ethos has been to let their drivers race for supremacy until a clear championship contender emerges.

“We had a situation (in China) where (Hamilton and Bottas) were pushing each other very hard, taking a risk of potentially not finishing the race. So it’s not a Ferrari problem alone. Each team has that issue if you have two alpha drivers.”

And an alpha driver the young Monegasque is certainly turning out to be. A driver that is sure to give Vettel quite the headache he may not have been expecting at the beginning of the season.

Former Ferrari driver Gerhard Berger is the latest to add his views to the Ferrari team orders debate, the Austrian’s view being that they are wrong at this stage of the season to favour one driver over the other.

“Much as I like Sebastian and rate him, here is a boy [Leclerc] who is capable of winning the championship,” Berger is quoted on BBC Sport. “I don’t think it’s enough to say, ‘Well this one is experienced, this one is not experienced so we take the card of the experience’. I think let it run.

“It’s a question of when it is [acceptable], and is it really giving somebody not even a chance to win the championship? And if you do it in the first or second race, I don’t agree.”

With Mercedes now holding a 57-point advantage in the constructors’ standings and only a point separating the Ferrari drivers, Vettel already 31 points behind Hamilton, Ferrari need to find a solution, and find one fast.

The obvious solution appears to be to let the drivers race, similar strategies or otherwise. Finding that perfect ‘happy medium’ between competitive teammates is never easy and by that stage, it may already be too late.

More importantly, it’s not what the fans want to see either. It’s already intriguing to find out who is the quickest in a straight fight, Vettel or Leclerc? Nobody really wants the question of team orders to muddy the situation at this stage.

Fraser Masefield

Sports news and features writer, web editor and author.