Vettel contending with team-mate Leclerc as rival Hamilton races clear

Having won five consecutive Formula One constructors' championships and then kept their team together for the 2019 season, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Mercedes are dominating again.

While the rest of the grid shuffled around in the close season, the Silver Arrows were again able to focus their efforts on champion Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas.

But Ferrari, and Sebastian Vettel in particular, surely could not have expected the start of the new campaign to be quite so brutal. They might well be out of the title race already.

Hamilton's victory in China - his second of the year - combined with a second-placed finish for Bottas, who won the opening race in Australia, means Mercedes have kicked off the campaign with three one-two finishes in a row.

That last happened in F1 back in 1992 when Williams enjoyed an embarrassingly straightforward season, coasting to the constructors' title with Nigel Mansell top of the drivers' standings and Riccardo Patrese second.

Such a repeat this year would be hugely damaging for Ferrari, yet it is difficult to rule it out right now. The gap between the top two teams is already at 57 points at this early stage.

Understandably, given the car's impressive performance in pre-season testing, attentions have already turned to their tactics, as they favour Vettel over new recruit Charles Leclerc.

Vettel is used to jostling with Hamilton at the front, but he required team orders to allow him through to take third in Shanghai and nudge a point ahead of Leclerc in the standings, though he still sits behind Max Verstappen.

And Vettel was spiky when asked about that call, accusing the media of "poor journalism" and claiming he would be misquoted as questions about preferential treatment persisted.

Yet such queries had existed even before Vettel failed to inspire again last week, forcing Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto to defend his driver - for the time being at least.

Vettel is Ferrari's main man, Binotto said. However, he added: "In a few races' time, things may change. We may change our position, no doubt."

After Sunday's race, Binotto acknowledged that he could understand Leclerc's disappointment after finishing in fifth place.

So, three meetings into the season, Vettel is facing a vastly different challenge to the usual title hunt. Instead, he is aiming to hold off Leclerc and ensure he retains top billing in the team.

Meanwhile, Hamilton appears to be in the clear, seemingly enjoying a free run at a sixth world title and a third in a row. His great modern rivalry with Vettel unfortunately looks in danger of becoming one-sided.

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