2019 Australian GP: Leclerc vs Vettel

The 2019 Australian Grand Prix is over, not without some excitement, especially considering that Albert Park has a reputation of being a track where overtaking is very difficult. We had some good surprises, with Verstappen and Red Bull showing great pace, and with Vettel and Ferrari having a bad time. Where did the pace go for the Scuderia? And how bad were they really during the weekend? That’s something that we will analyze on another post. For now, let’s talk about the first intrateam battle of the season, Leclerc vs Vettel. Youth vs Experience. Monaco vs Germany. Bouillabaisse vs kartoffel.

As you most likely already know, Vettel took 4th place in Albert Park, finishing 57.109 seconds behind the eventual winner, Valtteri Bottas. Charles Leclerc finished just right behind the German, only 1.121 seconds behind his teammate. A controversial topic was the decision of Ferrari to instruct Leclerc to “back off to have some margin.” When asked after the race, team director Mattia Binotto stated that Vettel could not get the expected grip from the medium tires, and that they decided not to take any chances and just take the points home. When asked about the balance of the car, Vettel  denied a problem, stating that he felt that “the balance was right, the car was responding to what I was asking it to do. I had a lot of confidence”, and justified his lack of speed due to poor grip.

Here, we will analyze what do the numbers from the race say, and hopefully that will help you to make a more informed decision on weather or not Ferrari made the right choice by instructing Leclerc to hold back.

Raw pace

Starting with the basics, we will start analyzing the raw pace of both drivers. Vettel kept his third place position at the beginning of the race, while Charles maintained his fifth place without too much trouble either (I’m sure if asked, he would say that it was not easy, and to be fair, he would be right). Since both drivers qualified in the top 10, they both had to start with the tires that were used during qualifying 2, that means the red striped soft tires.

In the graph we show the raw pace per lap on the y-axis, while the laps are shown on the x-axis. The colored line and  shadow show an averaged pace with 95% confidence intervals.

The trend for the first 25 laps seems fairly clear, with Vettel holding a consistently faster pace than Leclerc, with the exception of laps 19 and 20. Vettel stated that he felt happy with his first stint, and his numbers prove that when compared to his teammate, he was indeed quite fast. After his first pit stop at lap 14, Vettel went onto the medium tires, and kept pushing quicker laps than Leclerc, that is until Charles stopped for new tires at lap 28. Interestingly, the Monegasque stopped for hard tires, even though he only had a little bit over half of the race to go. This perhaps indicates that Vettel and Ferrari were not happy with the performance of the medium tires in this race.

Delta per Lap

Let’s analyze the second part of the race with the next figure. The “Delta per Lap” graph clearly shows what the previous analysis showed as well, that is that Vettel was faster on 24 of the initial 27 laps of the 2019 Australian Grand Prix, but that after Leclerc’s pit stop, he was outpaced for the next 21 laps by an average of 0.785 seconds, with 5 of those laps being over 1 second faster. Following the trend, it is likely that Leclerc was on route to overtake Vettel by lap 52 or 53 if it were not for team orders. Leclerc’s pace on his last lap, a fast 1:26.926 done while attempting to go for the fastest lap of the race, shows that the hard compound was pretty durable, and that he still had some pace in the pocket.

Lap times and delta times between both Ferrari drivers show that perhaps Vettel stopped too early. Even worse, the medium compound did not work properly with the new SF90 in Australia. With only 14 laps on the medium tires, he became significantly slower than Leclerc with the hard compound. After that, he was a sitting duck and was able to keep fourth place likely due to team orders.

Average pace distribution

Last but not least, let’s take a look at the average pace distribution graph(s). Here, each dot represents a lap, while the horizontal line represents the average lap time over the entire race. And yes, this is where it gets even more interesting.

Vettel ended up being faster than Leclerc on 48.27% of the laps by virtue of his first half of the race. The average time for each driver is as follows:

Leclerc: 01:28.942

Vettel: 01:28.967

The difference of just over 2 hundredths of a second proves how tight was the average pace between both drivers. The graph however, shows an even more interesting story. Vettel’s distribution shows how consistent he was during the race, with most of his times slightly below the mean. Leclerc on the other hand, had a race of two halves. His first stint was consistent, but slower than Vettel’s. His second stint was also very consistent, but this time faster than Vettel’s.

Another way of visualizing the exact same data is with the following density plot. It is clear that Vettel’s lap times follow a typical unimodal distribution, that means that you see only a single peak. Leclerc’s data show however more of a bimodal distribution, with not so many data points in the middle. This exemplifies how consistent Vettel was during the entire race, regardless of compound being used at the time, while Leclerc was consistent in each stint, but each one of them produced a different average time.

One of the most unexpected takes from this plot is how Vettel’s fastest time, a 1:27.953 lap shown with a data label and a dashed vertical line, was still slower than 27.58% of the laps done by Charles Leclerc.

Ouch, not a great start from Ferrari’s number 1.

Conclusion

From a personal opinion, based on this data, it seems like Vettel pitted too early and obtained no real benefit from stopping at lap 14. Arguably, his laps were not faster than they would have been if he had not stopped. If anything, the lack of grip from the medium compound started to show in the last half of the race and he could not recover from that.

Leclerc on the other hand had a poor first half of the race. He was not consistently fast, which is understandable considering that this was his first race with the Scuderia. He and his car came back to life when he put on the hard compound, which is quite unexpected and I’m sure many teams are looking at this.

Is it all over for Vettel? I do not think so. He had a bad race, and I believe that the data shows that maybe this was caused by a problem with his setup. Even though he said the car was feeling good and balanced, the numbers show that perhaps that was not the case. I find very hard to believe that in the same car, the four times world champion is much slower than his fairly novice, albeit talented, teammate.

That is all from my part. I hope that showing you this data will help you make your own conclusions.

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