By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Sebastian Vettel said on Thursday new Ferrari team mate 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, said testily that 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 on Thursday.
“I think Charles will do his best to help himself, to help the team and that’s the same for me, I’ll do the best to help myself and to help the team.
“In the end we are racing for Ferrari and that means we will 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 and the rest, it’s a long, long season and I think it’s a bit pointless at this point to start pointing out certain scenarios.”
Monegasque Leclerc, who drove for Sauber last year, has swapped race seats with Kimi Raikkonen, with the Finnish former champion now at the rebranded Alfa Romeo team.
Leclerc said Binotto had also told him he would be free to race Vettel, albeit with the qualification that the German would be given priority in certain race situations.
The highly rated 21-year-old declined to elaborate as to what situations would apply but was unfazed about the prospect of having to play second fiddle to Vettel.
“I’m still young but I’m pretty sure that you always learn with our sport,” he said in the paddock.
“On the feedback side there are still a lot of things I can learn from Seb especially because he’s very experienced and very strong in that point.
“So I’ve got a good example next to me.”
Ferrari, runners-up in the constructors championship the last two years, have arrived with plenty of buzz around their SF90 car, which was fast and reliable during winter testing.
Pundits have tipped the Scuderia to give Mercedes, winners of the last five driver’s and constructors’ titles, a genuine challenge in the coming championship.
Ferrari’s last constructors’ title came in 2008.
Vettel was also bullish about his car’s quality compared to last year’s leadup to Melbourne, where he snatched a lucky win over Lewis Hamilton courtesy of a safety car deployment.
“In this regard we are more prepared, the car seems to work fine and there are no problems at this stage,” he said.
“But having said that, obviously, we can’t do better than last year’s result. So we’ve got a tough week ahead of us.
“Always at the start you’re a bit nervous, you don’t know exactly where you are, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)