After a lackluster 2016, few expected Ferrari to start the new Formula 1 season matching previously-dominant Mercedes for race pace and victories.
Ferrari ended the 2016 Formula 1 season a winless, hopeless shell of a team. Or so it seemed. Most, with good reason, had written it off as a credible contender to challenge Mercedes even with the new rules package for this year, as Maranello appeared to be reverting back to the bad old days of unhappy underachievement, ravaged by politics and in-fighting. But come pre-season testing, the Ferrari SF70H looked good, seriously good, and not just in terms of lap times, but visually, in its poise and agility. The early races of the season provide that form was no illusion – which doesn’t make a huge amount of sense…
Losing highly-rated technical director James Allison last July was a big blow. The appointment of engine specialist Mattia Binotto in his stead didn’t inspire confidence, even with the legendary Rory Byrne offering the benefit of his experience in his capacity as Ferrari consultant. Sebastian Vettel had ended the 2016 system underperforming and increasingly agitated by Ferrari’s lack of progress, Ferrari chairman Sergio Marchionne was piling on the pressure, and team principal Maurizio Arrivabene was clearly feeling it. The conclusion was obvious: it was going to get worse for a misfiring Ferrari before it got better. So why didn’t this trend continue?
An obvious answer is the change in technical leadership. Team does badly, technical boss changes, team does well. Simple, right? Well, F1 teams are complex beasts and correlation does not always equal causation. Ferrari started serious work on the 2017 car several months before Allison left and the technical team has not changed substantially in terms of personnel, yet the organizational changes instigated by Binotto and well-regarded chief designer Simone Resta have also gone well. Maranello cannot be rebuilt in a day, and Allison’s technical regime will clearly have played a big part – not that Allison is the type of character to talk up his contribution.
“I left Ferrari many months ago and joined Mercedes just some small number of weeks ago,” said Allison when asked about his contribution to Ferrari’s revival during April’s Bahrain Grand Prix weekend. “Anything that Ferrari has done for this year’s car is a credit to the people who worked at Ferrari over these months and what they delivered.”
Binotto has refused to be drawn on what has changed internally, and echoed Allison’s talking up of the staff, but the external manifestation of this improvement is clear.
Last year, the Ferrari was an inconsistent car, prone to struggling in higher temperatures. This was potentially a consequence of the fact that, when air temperature is higher, airflow separation at the diffuser usually occurs at a higher ride height than in cooler temperatures. Raise the ride height to compensate and you lose performance. In short, it was a car with a narrow operating window, and even when things were perfect it lacked the downforce of the Mercedes. This year, it has arguably been the most consistent car in all conditions, excelling particularly on the harder Pirelli tire compounds that Mercedes has difficulty with.
Design lead times are a funny thing and can distort the picture, and even when 2016’s struggle were playing out, the seeds of the Ferrari revival had to be already germinating. When Ferrari recovered from a desultory 2014 and started winning again the following season, the new regime was widely credited. But as one of the ousted parties ruefully quipped when the topic came up in conversation, the decisions they’d made before they were shown the door had paid off…
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