Ferrari had one of its least competitive race weekends in a decade at the Belgian Grand Prix, where the team sunk to a new low. But even with two surprise podiums for Charles Leclerc, the Scuderia’s 2020 season was already bad long before we got to Spa-Francorchamps.
This was meant to be the team that would take the fight to Mercedes even more this year than last, when it had a major power unit advantage for much of last season. That strength had faded away in the final races – apparently hamstrung by technical directives – but the car was still comfortably third-quickest, and surely had a baseline to get close again this year.
Testing went badly, and there was an honest assessment from Ferrari that it was not at the level of Mercedes or Red Bull heading to Australia. But then the COVID-19 delayed the start of the season, and I’ll admit that I wondered if it would be a blessing in disguise as Ferrari would get some extra time to address its pre-season shortcomings, regardless of the unusual circumstances.
So when the team admitted it would have its launch-spec car at the first race in Austria, something was clearly very wrong. And those with good memories will recall that a new aerodynamic direction was rushed through after three races, designed to get the team back on track. Look how that’s gone.
This is the most successful team in Formula 1 history; one that has earned hundreds of millions of dollars more than many of its rivals over the past decade in bonus payments alone. And yet on Sunday it was in a very real fight to avoid being classified as the slowest car on the grid on pace.
Much has been made of the team’s handling of Sebastian Vettel’s departure and the four-time world champion’s performances, but when all is said and done he is driving a car that was only just good enough to escape Q1, at a circuit where 12 months earlier – with no significant aerodynamic rule changes – the team was first and second in every session from FP1 through Q3.
You don’t need me to tell you the power unit technical directives have clearly had a massive impact on Ferrari, but it was beaten by the Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo on Sunday, and scrapping with the Haas, too. Nicholas Latifi in the Williams was within four seconds at the flag. Just what has gone so wrong?
“Spa is a circuit where the power is important as well as aero efficiency,” team principal Mattia Binotto explained during a video conference on Sunday night that showed similar performance on a technical level to this year’s SF1000. “The car developed this season is certainly more draggy… and eventually we get most of this benefit on circuits where downforce is required, and not the efficiency.
“Can you bring the last year’s car’s pieces on that one? The car is quite different. The car itself is not a plug and play, is not something you can take from one to the other, so that’s not possible.
“Obviously power and aero efficiency is the first part of the circuit question, but that’s not sufficient to explain our performance of this weekend, because I don’t think that battling with our customer teams is where we are expecting to be. There is something more we are looking at which at the moment we do not (understand).”
While Ferrari claims to have a lack of understanding, its rivals seem to have a more clear one. After suggesting there was something untoward about the Ferrari power unit last year, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner thinks the source of the problems is pretty easy to identify, and it tallies with Binotto’s assessment of a draggy car.
“It’s obviously very tough for them, but I think their focus has obviously been in the wrong areas in previous years, which is why they’re obviously seem to be struggling a little with whatever was in that agreement,” Horner said.
By “that agreement”, Horner means the undisclosed details of an agreement reached with the FIA over the winter, announced just at the end of pre-season testing. It very specifically did not say Ferrari had been cheating with its power unit last year, but it didn’t say it hadn’t been, either. It simply said an agreement was reached relating to the power unit, and teams are still desperate to know what the contents were.
“The whole thing has left quite a sour taste,” Horner continued. “I mean, obviously you can draw your own conclusions from Ferrari’s current performance but, yeah there are races that we should have won last year arguably if they had run with an engine that seems to be quite different to what performance they had last year.”
You’d have thought Ferrari’s struggles this year might have appeased Mercedes and Red Bull to an extent after the FIA agreement, but if Horner sounds blunt, Toto Wolff had already gone even further after qualifying. He voiced frustration at both the power unit settlement and the lack of a challenge from Ferrari this weekend, and suggested those at the top are to blame.
“Ferrari is an iconic brand and they should be racing at the very front,” Wolff said. “It’s not good for Formula 1, not good for the competition at the front and I very much feel for all the tifosi for this lack of performance. But at the end, one must question the priorities that have been set in recent times and where the lack of performance comes from. Overall, nobody from the fans and the Ferrari people deserve such a result.
“It’s wrong to say ‘Ferrari’s’ priorities, because that drags Ferrari and everybody at Ferrari into this. It’s maybe the decisions that have been made within the team from certain members of the team.”
When Horner’s words were put to Wolff on Sunday night, he agreed with the Red Bull team principal, but also revealed he may have pushed members of his own staff to breaking point to try and react to what Ferrari was doing a year ago.
“It’s difficult to say, because I don’t want to put any more oil into this, but we were really stretched, so much, last year and the year before that we suffered,” Wolff admitted. “We lost some people in terms of being at the end of their health, and this is why I would probably follow Christian’s comment.”
It’s that aspect, along with the lost results that Horner mentions, that means Ferrari will get no sympathy from its rivals. They will continue to turn the screw and ramp up the pressure on Binotto and co.
Pressure from the outside is part of the game, but pressure from within is quite another. And that will grow exponentially with each passing race like Spa.
“Who is responsible? The entire team is responsible,” Binotto said. “Myself as team principal first. Whether I am the right man or not, is not for myself to answer. How long it will take? I think if you look back at all the winning cycles that have been set, it’s always many years, there are no silver bullets in F1. Patience and stability is required.”
That might be the case, but patience and stability are rarely seen at Ferrari. As a team principal with a technical background, it always felt like Binotto’s biggest challenge would be the political side of the sport and handling his two drivers. Yet the greatest failing is on the technical side, and it’s a failing of epic proportions.
Now he’s facing the political pressure from his rival team bosses too – ones who are smelling blood and suggesting specific personnel are to blame for the remarkable decline – and he appears to have little to fight back with.
COVID-19 might yet prove to be Binotto’s saving grace, with the unusual nature of the season and lack of fans at Monza giving him some slight breathing space. Or, two races in Italy – the first of which looks like being particularly painful – could increase the level of scrutiny and trigger major changes at Maranello.
Given how the last 12 months have played out, who knows what will happen next?