Can I just start this week’s column by pointing out that, while we have many failings, not all Formula 1 journalists are complete idiots.
I say that because you’d probably have every right to think we are based on the Australian Grand Prix result. For most people in the paddock, Ferrari was the favorite heading to Melbourne. And that was not a position just conjured out of thin air. The SF90 looked the class of the field in Barcelona testing, whether you watched it trackside, caught an onboard, or spent hours delving into the lap times.
Of course Mercedes wasn’t being written off. There was clear progress between the first and second tests, and weaknesses the team hoped to improve upon in the two weeks before Melbourne. But Ferrari had the same amount of time available to try and further strengthen its position.
Even if that didn’t happen, at least Ferrari knew it had a stable and responsive car that both drivers had great confidence in – something that would be important on the temporary Albert Park circuit.
Quite clearly, something went very, very wrong.
That the lead Ferrari was nearly a minute behind race-winner Valtteri Bottas is pretty remarkable. If I’d been placing a bet, I’ll still admit I’d have put money on it being more likely such a margin would be between a dominant Ferrari and the rest of the field than a leading Mercedes after testing.
But worrying signs from the Friday did not disappear, as Ferrari struggled to get its car working in Melbourne and Mercedes dominated. And it leaves plenty of concerning questions for the Scuderia heading to Bahrain.
Suggestions that the power unit needed to be run at a limited capacity could hold weight, given the team lost a full morning of running during pre-season testing due to issues with the cooling system that needed investigating. But then you’d expect such a major concern to have been addressed before Australia. After all, Haas and Alfa Romeo appeared to have no such problems…
It’s also true that the bumpy nature of Albert Park is very different to Barcelona and Bahrain, so if the car’s aerodynamic philosophy was far more sensitive to the street circuit then a clear gain should be seen at race two.
But there’s no two ways about it, Ferrari left Australia completely devoid of answers.
“Last year we left winter testing with problems on the car,” Sebastian Vettel admits. “It wasn’t behaving the way we wanted it, the way it should. This year was the opposite, the car was behaving the way we expected and it felt very good.
“That’s why we came (to Australia) last year and the balance wasn’t right, because we had to cover up. We had a very poor rear end last year, and felt we had to trim the car towards understeer a lot. That didn’t feel great. We managed for the weekend last year, and the race pace was fine, but we weren’t there in qualifying.
“We got lucky in the race, but I think by Bahrain we had fixed all our issues from winter testing last year in the first race, and that’s why I think we all of a sudden unlocked a lot more pace for last year.
“This year, the problem that we have has nothing to do with what we have seen last year. Clearly we’re missing something. Right now, we don’t have an answer, but we need to have a good look and I’m sure we’ll find something, because we know that the car is better than what we’ve seen, not just (in the race in Melbourne) but the whole weekend.”
Such is the relentless pace that F1 teams work at, Ferrari might well believe it has found some of the answers by now, but will only get a true reading when the SF90 runs on track in Bahrain.
A bigger concern stems from the fact that Ferrari didn’t realize there was a problem at all. As Vettel points out, last season the team left pre-season testing with obvious weaknesses that it wanted to try and iron out. Solutions could be worked upon, and even though they weren’t ready in time for Melbourne, there were good enough improvements by the second race that Vettel then went on to secure three consecutive pole positions.
That doesn’t mean the car was perfect. Bottas could well have won in Bahrain but never risked a lunge on Vettel in the closing laps, and the Finn probably should have won the two races after that in China and Azerbaijan but for an unfortunately-timed Safety Car and a dramatic late-race puncture respectively.
In many ways now, the shoe is on the other foot. Mercedes started pre-season testing with a car it was unhappy with, understood the reasons for it and managed to turn that into the strongest package by far at the opening round.
The potential Ferrari showed in Barcelona and its ability to improve a troublesome car at the start of last year should be reasons for optimism ahead of Bahrain. But the unexpected slump in Australia and lack of answers during the race weekend reduce confidence that there will be a quick fix. And it’s not like the man tasked with finding those fixes doesn’t have enough on his plate.
Much like the incorrect predictions of Ferrari dominance in Australia, I was one of many who expected that the biggest headache team principal Mattia Binotto was likely to face this season to come from the driver line-up.
Signs of that did crop up in Melbourne, where Charles Leclerc was told to hold position behind Vettel in the closing stages as the lead car struggled for pace, but in reality that was a simple call that many teams make after the final round of pit stops with no other threats to worry about.
Binotto’s mindset now will be the same as he needed in his old role of technical director. He doesn’t need to worry about managing personal dynamics, egos or overall team atmosphere, he needs black and white solutions to engineering problems.
It all means that Bahrain should be absolutely fascinating. If Binotto’s team can find those answers then a huge fight between Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull could be in the offing. If not, then the only Ferrari fights will be internal.
If the past few seasons are anything to go by, Ferrari can’t afford to miss opportunities at the start of the year. It needs to be ahead of the game, not playing catch-up.