Vettel 'free to race' new teammate Leclerc

New Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc signing an autograph as he arrives at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne yesterday ahead of the season-opening Australian race.
New Ferrari driver Charles Leclerc signing an autograph as he arrives at the Albert Park Grand Prix Circuit in Melbourne yesterday ahead of the season-opening Australian race.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE • Sebastian Vettel said yesterday that new Ferrari teammate Charles Leclerc will be "free to race" from the start of the Formula One season and the German rejected suggestions his bid for a fifth world championship title would take precedence.

Ferrari's new team principal Mattia Binotto said earlier in the year that Vettel, as the team's "champion", would be given priority over Leclerc in certain racing situations, though he later clarified the drivers would be "free to fight".

Vettel, bidding for a third successive win in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on Sunday, said he expected no special treatment.

"I think it's very clear, and I think Mattia also made it very clear, we are free to race each other," he told reporters at Albert Park yesterday.

"I think Charles will do his best to help himself, to help the team and that's the same for me.

"In the end we are racing for Ferrari. That means we'll try to get Ferrari back to where we've been trying to get it back to the last couple of years. That's the main priority."

Monegasque Leclerc, who drove for Sauber last year, has swopped seats with Kimi Raikkonen, with the Finnish former champion now at the rebranded Alfa Romeo team.

Ferrari, runners-up in the constructors' championship in the last two years, have arrived with plenty of buzz around their SF90 car, both fast and reliable during testing.

Pundits have tipped the Scuderia to give Mercedes, winners of the last five drivers' and constructors' titles, a genuine challenge this year.

Vettel has also vowed to shrug off a "disaster" 2018 and topple arch-rival Lewis Hamilton to help Ferrari win their first constructors' title since 2008.

"There is a lot of passion inside this team willing to get out and to express ourselves through winning," the German said.

"So that's the target. So far the atmosphere is good, the spirit is right within the team and we will try to carry that into the season."

Defending champion Hamilton believes Mercedes have a big task on their hands against Ferrari.

"It's a long season, so I don't particularly feel that (pressure to win) this week," he said.

"It's difficult to know what everyone's doing. Naturally we won't fully know until we get out in the car tomorrow and come qualifying you get a better picture.

"We have work to do."

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 15, 2019, with the headline 'Vettel 'free to race' new teammate Leclerc'. Print Edition | Subscribe