Ferrari defends use of team orders at Chinese Grand Prix

SHANGHAI -- Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto defended his team's controversial decision to enforce team orders on its drivers during the Chinese Grand Prix on Sunday.

Sebastian Vettel had started third in Shanghai, but he was immediately passed by teammate Charles Leclerc on the run into Turn 1. However, Leclerc's inability to put a gap on the German in the opening stages, combined with the fact that both Mercedes cars were pulling away at the front, saw Ferrari radio in to the 21-year-old and give him the hurry-up.

Although he did marginally pick up the pace, two laps later Leclerc was instructed to let Vettel pass. As well as losing time to Mercedes, the call left Leclerc exposed to an aggressive race strategy from Max Verstappen which elevated the Red Bull driver to fourth position between the two Ferrari drivers.

"It was certainly not an easy decision, because we understand the drivers need to battle to stay ahead as much as they can," Binotto said. "As a team we need to maximize the team's points. In that respect, we did the right choice.

"We could not lose time to the Mercedes ahead, and that was the only chance we got. We tried, it didn't work, but it seemed right to give that chance to Seb."

Leclerc was praised by Binotto for obeying the team's decision, but he admitted it was hard to hear yet another team order handed down. China was the third consecutive race Ferrari had told Leclerc to either not overtake Vettel or to let him pass -- in Australia he did as he was told, but in Bahrain he ignored the order and passed Vettel anyway.

"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. "So I just accepted it, did it, and focused on my race."

When asked if he was happy with the team's post-race explanation, Leclerc hesitated before saying: "Well, yeah."

Ferrari's team order allowed Vettel to finish third and capture his first podium of the season, but after three races he already trails championship leader Lewis Hamilton by 31 points.

Vettel said he understands why Ferrari made the decision, even if it eventually cost Leclerc fourth place.

"The priority always lies with the team. Charles is aware, I am aware that we are driving for the team," Vettel said. "We are fighting for our own race, but usually with this kind of stuff, it's never pleasant. We have so many races, only time will tell whether we did something right or wrong.

"Obviously I want to be ahead of Charles, he wants to be ahead of me, that's the name of the game. I think the upsetting thing after the race [in China] is that we didn't manage to finish third and fourth.

"We need to try to 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."