Lewis Hamilton took control of the world championship yesterday as rival Sebastian Vettel defended his No 1 billing at Ferrari.
In Formula 1’s 1,000th race, Hamilton, who may hang up his helmet as statistically the greatest driver that’s lived, delivered another flawless performance by winning for a sixth time in China, the 75th victory of his career, joining only Michael Schumacher by leading more than 4,000 laps.
Hamilton is now six points clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who finished second, in the championship standings, as he chases the sixth title which would take him to within one of Schumacher’s record.
But as Mercedes were celebrating their third one-two finish in as many rounds, Ferrari were dealing with a battle for driver supremacy which threatens to destabilise their season.
The new man on the block, Charles Leclerc, blew Vettel away in Bahrain and here he jumped his quadruple world champion team-mate at the first bend.
It was a problem the Ferrari pit wall would rather have done without, yet any lingering questions as to which driver receives Ferrari’s ultimate backing were answered inside ten laps of racing.
With the Mercedes cars streaking into the distance, Leclerc, running in third, was ordered out of Vettel’s way. The German believed he had the pace to match runaway leader Hamilton.
Leclerc, 21, protested the instruction. “I’m pulling away [from Vettel],” he said. Moments later, however, he moved aside. Vettel though would make no inroads and Leclerc was on the radio to say he was now losing time behind his team-mate. As they managed their drivers, Ferrari took their eye off Max Verstappen.
When Verstappen pitted first, Ferrari responded by again favouring Vettel. He was called in for tyres and stayed ahead of Verstappen but Ferrari would wait another four laps before stopping Leclerc.
As Leclerc plodded around on ageing rubber, he was left in no man’s land, and when he eventually stopped, he would rejoin the track in fifth, 11 seconds behind his team-mate, and the Red Bull, too. It is where he would finish.
“It is really unfair on Leclerc,” said Nico Rosberg, the 2016 world champion. Ferrari’s decision was “too harsh”, he added.
In the first three rounds of his Ferrari career, Leclerc has had the speed to finish ahead of Vettel but he has been subjected to team orders at every race. Ferrari are backing Vettel but the drama is proving a distracting sideshow.
Vettel is already 31 points behind Hamilton. Leclerc is one point further back.
“It’s fair if you see the whole race,” said Vettel, when probed on Ferrari’s order. “I knew at the moment it happened, I would have to face these questions.
“I was asked if I could go faster. I answered that I felt I could and, once I found a rhythm, I was able to chip away at the gap. The objective was to catch the Mercedes cars.
“I want to be ahead of Charles and he wants to be ahead of me. It is just a pain to answer the same questions. The priority lies within the team. We are driving for the team, and this stuff is not pleasant, but what goes around comes around. It is not easy for anyone involved.”
Leclerc admitted he was frustrated but had accepted the decision.
Ferrari’s rookie team principal Mattia Binotto lauded the young Monegasque.
“It was not easy to give the order,” he said. “I thank Charles for the way he behaved and showing he is a good team player. We made the right choice.”
It could be argued that Hamilton has yet to find top gear this season but he left the Far East last night with a comfortable cushion in the championship race by virtue of back-to-back wins.
He blasted his way past pole-sitter Bottas following a fine start and controlled the race with a textbook lights-to-flag win.
“The start was really where I was able to make the difference,” he said. “After that it was history.”