Sebastian Vettel insisted he did not defy team orders after Lewis Hamilton took advantage of a Ferrari meltdown to win in Russia and edge closer to a sixth Formula One world title.
Hamilton should never have been in contention to win in Sochi, but for the bumbling Scuderia throwing away a certain one-two after Vettel broke down and Charles Leclerc dropped from first to third.
As the Briton celebrated his ninth victory of the year, moving 73 points clear in the standings with just 130 points remaining, Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto was attempting to manage a driver crisis following the fallout from a curious agreement struck on the eve of Sunday's race.
The Italian team had decided that, in order to beat Hamilton and finish first and second, pole-sitter Leclerc would provide Vettel with a slipstream on the 900-metre charge to the opening bend. The arrangement determined that if Vettel, who started third, got ahead of both Hamilton and Leclerc, he would allow his team-mate back into the lead.
Ferrari three times ordered Vettel to let Leclerc by. Vettel rebuffed their orders. The German said that he would be in danger of losing third to Hamilton if he slowed down to let Leclerc through. He also argued that he made the move fair and square and without the advantage of a tow.
With Vettel refusing to play ball, Ferrari pitted Leclerc four laps earlier to give him the advantage of fresh rubber. It worked, but moments after leaving the pits, Vettel retired with an engine failure. With Vettel's car in a precarious position, the virtual safety car period was deployed to slow down the field, affording Hamilton, who had yet to pit, a free stop for tyres and the lead of the race. An 82nd career win followed for Hamilton, completing an afternoon to forget for the men dressed in red.
"I stuck to the agreement," said Vettel, 32. "I spoke with Charles before the race. It was quite clear. Maybe I missed something?"
Over to Leclerc. "Everything was respected at the start," he said. "I gave Seb the slipstream, and we knew he would overtake.
"There was no need to take a risk because we would swap back and that is why I didn't fight him. I need to speak to the team."
Later on Sunday evening, Binotto arrived with his warring drivers to provide an explanation of sorts. Binotto insisted on three occasions that neither driver defied the deal, but his words appeared to pin the blame on the four-time world champion, Vettel, rather than the team's emerging young star, the 21-year-old Leclerc.
"We agreed that Charles would give the slipstream to Seb," said Binotto, flanked by his glum-looking stars.
"Charles giving the slipstream to Seb and not defending his position would provide Seb with an advantage. So later on we would swap the positions of the cars.
"Our judgment was that the start went as planned and therefore we thought it was right to ask Seb to swap."
Leclerc is the sport's man of the moment, having secured four poles in as many races, and out-qualifying Vettel at 10 rounds on the spin. But Leclerc's impressive form and the absence of a clear number one at Ferrari leaves Binotto with the almost improbable task of managing his stars.
"I still believe it is a luxury because we have two fantastic drivers," he said.
Ferrari's chaotic afternoon at the Black Sea resort enabled Mercedes the most unlikely of one-two finishes, while Hamilton ended his three-race losing streak.
With just five rounds left, it is difficult to see anything preventing Hamilton from taking the title.
"We are just trying to take things one race at a time, put one foot in front of the other and not stumble," Hamilton said.
"When you have a battle like this, you're working flat out, turning over every stone and questioning every little thing you can do better. We love that challenge and I'm really excited for the next races."
- Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) - 322
- Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes) - 249
- Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) - 215
- Max Verstappen (Red Bull) - 212
- Sebastian Vettel (Ferrari) - 194
- Pierre Gasly (Red Bull) - 69
- Carlos Sainz Jr (McLaren) - 66
- Alexander Albon (Toro Rosso) - 52
- Lando Norris (McLaren) - 35
- Daniel Ricciardo (Renault) - 34
- Nico Hulkenburg (Renault) - 34
- Daniil Kvyat (Toro Rosso) - 33
- Sergio Perez (Racing Point) - 33
- Kimi Raikkonen (Alfa Romeo Racing) - 31
- Kevin Magnussen (Haas) - 20
- Lance Stroll (Racing Point) - 19
- Romain Grosjean (Haas) - 8
- Antonio Giovinazzi (Alfa Romeo Racing) - 4
- Robert Kubica (Williams) - 1
- George Russell (Williams) - 0