Toto Wolff says Charles Leclerc showed his character as a driver by not trying to back up George Russell in the final sector of the race in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Ferrari needed to outscore Mercedes by four points to take second place in the constructors’ championship, and Leclerc ran second throughout the race to ensure he would outscore Russell by at least three points. But with Lewis Hamilton in ninth, Leclerc needed Russell to drop to fourth and Sergio Perez’s time penalty meant the Red Bull had to pull a five-second gap over Russell to achieve it.
Leclerc let Perez by after giving him DRS on the final lap to try and pull out a bigger gap – knowing he’d regain second place due to the penalty – but did not try and influence Russell himself to create a wider margin.
“I think we came to this weekend a bit on the back foot when you saw Ferrari’s performances in the last few races,” Wolff said. “For whatever reasons, it’s difficult to put the car in a sweet spot. We’ve seen that with Carlos [Sainz], who was never there this weekend. The same with Lewis.
“You have two guys fighting at the front. I think George’s drive was impeccable, also managing the gaps at the end. The fight with Ferrari is a formidable fight between these two great brands, a team that we respect a lot. And Charles drove like a real sportsman at the end.
“Perez for quite some time wasn’t really on the radar. I mean, we knew that they probably couldn’t hang out on a one-stop. And then he came out, what was it, 10 seconds, 11 seconds behind us? At that moment, we only concentrated on ourselves, and said let’s extract the quickest race for George, bearing in mind you need to manage the [tire] surfaces, if not you’re falling off a cliff.
“And then we knew that we have to be within five seconds of Perez, but Leclerc was so far ahead that we didn’t believe that he could manage these gaps in order to keep us behind, and at the end, he could have pulled the handbrake on in the last sector and he didn’t. I think that shows the character of a driver.”
With Perez dropping from second to fourth at the checkered flag, it ensured Russell scored just his second podium of the season, and he admits Mercedes was fortunate the Mexican had a penalty.
“It was a great weekend, and I’m really pleased to finish on this high because it’s been a really challenging season,” Russell said. “One, as a team, but on a personal side, just not getting the results that we probably deserve.
“The pace has been really strong on so many occasions, but just results kept on slipping through our fingers. So, lady luck was maybe on our side slightly with Checo’s penalty but I think that more than made up for the other races this year.”