Ferrari has a bigger problem than team orders after the Chinese Grand Prix

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SHANGHAI -- Two third-place trophies. After the team's most promising preseason in more than a decade, that's all Ferrari has to show from the first three races of 2019. Meanwhile, Mercedes has become the first team since Williams in 1992 to start a season with three one-two victories.

So what's going wrong for Ferrari? Is it simply that the car isn't as quick as it seemed in Barcelona testing? Or has Ferrari thrown away points with botched strategies and questionable team orders? The answer is not a straightforward one, but Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix provided an interesting case study in Ferrari's early-season form.

After reliability issues cost the team its first victory of the year in Bahrain, expectations were high that it would be able to bounce back in China. The kilometre-long straight between Turn 13 and Turn 14 was supposed to play to the Ferrari's straight-line-speed strength, yet as an overall package the SF90 was found lacking compared to its main rival.

And then there were the team orders. At all of the first three races of the 2019 season, the Ferrari pit wall has attempted to dictate the order of its cars on track. In Australia it radioed Charles Leclerc to tell him to remain behind Sebastian Vettel -- an order he obeyed; in Bahrain Leclerc was told to remain behind Vettel for at least two laps when he clearly had the pace to pass on the following pit straight -- an order he disobeyed; and in Shanghai he was told to move out the way for Vettel on the 11th lap after passing his teammate in the opening corner but struggling to pull a gap -- an order he obeyed.

On Ferrari's side, the race management has been nothing if not consistent. New team principal Mattia Binotto made clear at the start of the year that Vettel would be favoured in 50/50 situations and reiterated it in a press conference ahead of the Chinese Grand Prix weekend. And for a team that was lambasted for not offering Vettel the support he needed last year in his title battle with Lewis Hamilton, the team orders have a certain logic to them.

Part of Ferrari's new management style under Binotto is for the drivers and team principal to face the press together on Sunday night. Win or lose, Vettel and Leclerc sit either side of their boss in preparation for whatever the media has to throw at them. Binotto has set out this year to give his drivers an environment in which they can perform at their best, and although it won't have a direct effect on the car's performance, the team sees the importance of presenting a united front on Sunday evening.

The media session takes place after the team's engineering briefing, meaning any controversial issues can be settled behind closed doors first. Knowing this, Leclerc was diplomatic in his immediate reaction to the events of Sunday's race when he jumped out the car, but with the opportunity to sit face to face with the engineers that made the call, the obvious follow up was whether he understood their reasoning and was satisfied by it?

"Obviously we had the meeting," the 21-year-old said. "It was not an easy situation. I was obviously struggling with tyres. We both were. But at the time, it just felt like Seb was quicker. But obviously being behind me for some laps, he also damaged his tyres, and when he went in front, his tyres were probably also damaged. So yeah."

A fair explanation of what happened, but was he satisfied?

"Yeah..." he said in an unconvincing tone. Before adding a more flat and solid, "I mean, yeah."

The message from Ferrari was fairly simple. Had Leclerc disappeared up the road after passing Vettel at the start, the team would not have asked him to move aside for his teammate. But for fans of racing, who want to see drivers pit their wits and talent against each other in wheel-to-wheel battles, such arguments will never sit right. Speaking on Sunday night, Binotto acknowledged the awkwardness of the team order in Shanghai but defended the call. "Certainly it's difficult as a team to give the order, because we understand the drivers, they need to battle to stay ahead as much as they can," he said. "So it was certainly not an easy decision.

"I have to thank Charles, I think the way he behaved, again he's showing he's a good team player, but I think again there will be a time when the situation is reverted. I think as a team, we need always to maximise the team points. In that respect again, I think we did the right choice."

Vettel, clearly upset with the line of questioning that has followed him since Leclerc was told to hold station behind him in Australia, added: "It's just a pain to answer the same questions over and over. I think the priority always lies within the team, so I think Charles is aware, I am aware that we are driving for the team.

"We are fighting for our own race, but usually with this kind of stuff, it's never pleasant, but it's a bit also what goes around comes around. We have so many races, only time will tell whether we did something right or wrong. At the time, you always try to do what is right.

"I can see that it's not easy for anyone involved, but as I said, we try to obviously get stronger and fight Mercedes which are currently a little bit ahead. We need to understand why we are behind and work on that so we don't have to worry about these things."

But stripping the emotion of team orders away from Sunday's result, the problem was not so much the change itself but the fact it didn't lead to a better result at the chequered flag. While sat behind Leclerc, Vettel had been setting times in the high 1:38s while race leader Hamilton was in the low 1:38s. The gap was widening with each lap, and while Vettel could get within a second of Leclerc, he didn't have the pace to make a move. From the outside it looked as though he was capable of a mid- to low-1:38s in clean air and, based on that assumption, it's easier to understand why Ferrari made the call. Leclerc was duly warned that he was not driving fast enough to keep the team's hopes of a win alive, and when he did not improve, the pit wall made the switch.

"Obviously being in the car, it was a bit frustrating, but on the other hand, I am well aware that in the car you don't see much or the full picture of the race," Leclerc said after the race. "So then I just accepted it, did it, and focused on my race."

But when Vettel found himself ahead of Leclerc and in the clean air he so desired, his times went up to the 1:39s and a series of small mistakes -- be it lock ups at Turn 14 or running wide on the exit of Turn 4 -- only added to his growing issues with his tyres. Part of the problem was the natural degradation of the medium compound, but it was also clear that Vettel was immediately feeling the pressure from Leclerc. Once swapped it looked like Vettel was the one holding his teammate up and, unsurprisingly, Leclerc raised that issue on the team radio. Not only was this costing valuable time to the two Mercedes out front, it was creating friction within the team and allowing Max Verstappen's Red Bull to close in on the back of Leclerc.

"It's always difficult to judge," Binotto said. "I think what we tried at the time, we tried everything we could to not lose time on the Mercedes ahead, and that was the only chance that we got at the time. We tried, it didn't work, let's say, but it seemed it was right to give that chance to Seb. I think as a team, we did whatever we could."

But in trying to challenge Mercedes, Ferrari neglected the fact it had actually fallen into a race for the final podium position with Red Bull. With teammate Pierre Gasly running behind him in sixth and Red Bull holding a comfortable pace advantage over the midfield teams, Verstappen had nothing to lose by switching to an aggressive two-stop strategy. So, with Ferrari preoccupied in its fading belief that it could still challenge Mercedes, Verstappen took advantage and made his first pit stop on Lap 17.

Such was the advantage of a fresh set of tyres that Vettel had to pit on the following lap to avoid being undercut by Verstappen. With only one pit box for two cars, and not a big enough gap between the Ferraris to double stack its drivers like Mercedes did later in the race, Leclerc had to be left on track. He would lose a place to Verstappen regardless as the Red Bull was now lapping well over two-seconds faster, and his only hope of holding fourth was to stick to a one-stop.

According to Pirelli's pre-race data, it was possible for Leclerc to go to the end on hard tyres after making his pit stop on Lap 22. But Red Bull triggered the second round of pit stops on Lap 34 and Verstappen emerged 19 seconds behind Leclerc but now lapping over a second faster with 22 laps remaining. Even the basic maths suggested it wouldn't be possible to keep the Red Bull behind and Ferrari also had the benefit of taking a look at the wear level on Vettel's hard tyres when they came off the car on Lap 35. It quickly became clear that running Leclerc to the end in the hope of holding Verstappen off was not a risk worth running, with this year's thinner gauge tyres offering a shorter physical lifespan than the chunkier rubber of previous seasons.

"We stayed out as far as we could, we tried to understand the tyre wear and if he could have concluded the race on one stop, and one stop could have been his better chance to recover some positions," Binotto said. "I think the longer we stayed out, we recognised that it was safer to come in."

So in the space of just 31 laps -- from the moment Vettel and Leclerc were switched on Lap 11 to Lap 42 when Leclerc made his second pit stop -- Ferrari's mentality had switched from chasing Mercedes for victory to conceding defeat to Red Bull. Yes, the team orders had looked clumsy and added nothing to Ferrari's chances of a strong result in Shanghai, but the biggest issue of all was its fundamental lack of race pace.

"I think that going back home to Maranello, the priority will not be to handle the [team orders] situation," Binotto said. "I think the first priority will be to focus on the performance of the car.

"I'm pretty sure that if we got the performance which will keep us ahead of the others, this issue will be sorted. The performance of the car is our first priority. That's what we will focus on."

Where did Ferrari's pace go?

The Shanghai International Circuit is an unusual track. The long sweeping corners of tightening and opening radii take their toll on the front tyres, and in terms of tyre management it is on the opposite end of the spectrum to Bahrain. In Bahrain the repeated acceleration out of slow corners has a tendency to overheat the rear tyres, so where the setup needs to protect the rears in Bahrain it must be used to nurse the front tyres in Shanghai. As a result, it is not unusual for a car to be quick at one circuit and struggle at the other.

But there was another, quite obvious, Ferrari anomaly at play in Shanghai. After dominating the speed trap figures in Australia, Bahrain and again in qualifying in Shanghai, the two Ferraris did not show the same sort of straight-line speed in the race. In qualifying in China, Vettel and Leclerc were the two fastest cars in qualifying by a comfortable margin, but in the race Ferrari were ninth and 13th in the speed trap rankings.

Race speed trap figures are dependent on several factors, including use of DRS, slipstreams, changing wind conditions and whether there is a requirement to push the engine at higher power modes -- hence why Lewis Hamilton only managed the 17th highest top speed -- but considering the Ferraris were trying to catch the Mercedes pair and straight-line speed is one of the car's strengths this year, it seems odd they were not quicker using the same aero setup as they had in qualifying.

"I believed that their straight line advantage, especially on the opening laps, would be a danger for us, and once DRS was enabled, even more," Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said after the race.

"But we didn't see them coming anywhere near us. I think our exit onto the main straight out of Turn 13 was very good, so we were able to pull a little gap there so they were never close enough. But it [the lack of Ferrari speed] came as a surprise."

It could be that Leclerc's engine issue in Bahrain has forced the team to go more conservative with its settings in the race. The control electronics were changed on five of the six Ferrari power units (including the two Haas cars and one Alfa Romeo) over the weekend to prevent a repeat of the Leclerc issue, but Binotto was adamant that rolling back to a more reliable component had "no impact" on performance.

Baku should help provide some more answers as F1 returns to another circuit where straight-line speed makes a big difference to overall lap time performance. However, after Mercedes strong performance in Shanghai, Binotto is not willing to second guess which way the pendulum will swing in two weeks' time.

"If you look at the speed of Mercedes this weekend, I thought they were very strong as well, so maybe we should ask them how they are so good this weekend," he said. "I don't think there is much on the straights between us and the others.

"Baku is a circuit where you have got a different aero configuration, certainly, so I think it's not only power units, it will be aero configuration we may choose for there. It's not only the straight in Baku, it's a lot of corners. It's a city circuit, very difficult in that respect. So let's see."

Binotto's methodical approach to rediscovering the car's performance is undoubtedly the right one, but it doesn't hide the fact that pressure is building on Ferrari. After three races it trails Mercedes by 57 points in the constructors' championship, and Vettel, as the highest-placed Ferrari driver, is already 31 adrift of Hamilton in the drivers' standings. Both margins are recoverable if Ferrari can rediscover the form it showed in pre-season testing and in Bahrain with Leclerc's car, but Mercedes is not standing still.

Ill feelings around the team orders situation is an added distraction, but if Ferrari starts winning races with that approach it will be much easier to justify. It will, however, need to be addressed internally and you can bet Leclerc will do everything in his power to keep that question high on Binotto's agenda. Just as the battle with Mercedes isn't over yet, nor is the battle between the two Ferrari drivers. Watching both unfold will be fascinating.