The big question about Ferrari is not if it will get back on top in Formula 1, but how long it will take to get there. It’s not an easy one to answer, given that the problems run deep and, although it has all the ingredients to be a contender again, it could take some time.
Ferrari’s precipitous drop from race-winning team with frustrated title-challenging aspirations over the previous three seasons to midfield struggler this year is rooted in the series of engine technical directives that have been issued in recent times. These were partly the result of a collaboration between Ferrari and the FIA through a secret engine settlement struck because of suspicions, unproven but clearly serious, that it was not running its power unit package legally. Ferrari is now well down on power, by around 50bhp, and has on average the fifth-fastest package of 2020.
Raking over the coals of this is an endless, inconclusive undertaking, but it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Ferrari has had to roll back the techniques it was using to run savage engine modes in qualifying that gave it a significant power advantage last year. This is not just about finding the power, but doing so in a way that does not damage the engine, given the huge heat generated if you advance the ignition timing. This season, it didn’t even have a special engine mode – something that became moot once the rule banning the changing of engine modes from qualifying to the race was introduced at the Italian Grand Prix in mid-September.
So Ferrari is already in a hole in terms of the engine, something that has also held back customer squads Haas and Alfa Romeo. But the disadvantages are compounded and the picture wider. While both Haas and Alfa Romeo have a higher aero-efficiency philosophy that serves them well, the Ferrari is simply too draggy for its power level. This explains why Alfa Romeo driver Kimi Raikkonen has been able to finish ahead of the leading Ferrari in the last two races at Monza and Mugello, on the road at least.
But the problems don’t end there, because Ferrari’s aero concept was already limited and the team had simply decided against a major overhaul for 2020 given the need to focus on the brand new aerodynamic regulations scheduled for 2021. These, of course, have been deferred to 2022 as part of the emergency measures in response to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic that wiped out the first four months of the season. On top of that, there are heavy restrictions on car changes for 2021, with aerodynamics free but the rest of the package heavily controlled by a token system that only allows selected key changes. It never rains, but it pours…
“We somehow try to address whatever we can for next season in terms of car development, trying to understand what are the [biggest] weaknesses of this season,” said Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto earlier this season. “It’s obvious the system is overall a compromise of the current situation post-COVID. We cannot be fully happy because, if you look where we are as Ferrari, our intention would have been to fully develop, but we understand the point and that’s part of the season compromises that have been taken”
There are also restrictions in place on the engine side. This is the biggest area of concern for Ferrari, given it’s at the heart of its problems. It desperately needs a big step forward in terms of power and has not only lost the gains it made previously, but has had to set a new course of development to achieve extra power by means compatible with the technical directives.
F1 is working towards a total freeze of the power units that will start with the introduction of the final permitted homologation changes in 2023. This means that up to and including 2023 the V6, turbocharger, MGU-H and fuel/engine oil can only have one change in spec per year. The MGU-H, MGU-K and energy store (battery) are only allowed one change across each of 2020/21 and 2022/2023. Given the lead times for such designs and the restrictions on dyno testing, Ferrari is massively up against it.
These restrictions are the biggest concern for Ferrari. It’s one thing to be behind, but there are constraints that might limit the speed of catching up. Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri showed how worried Ferrari is about this in an interview with British broadcaster Sky Sports F1 ahead of the Italian GP.
“I’m hoping with a bit more flexibility in the regs next year, we can at least step it up from where we are,” said Camilleri – making it clear that, behind the scenes, there is no lack of lobbying going on to allow Ferrari more chance to catch up.
We also need to take a further step back and look at the widest context for Ferrari. Its 2020 troubles are one thing, but this is a team that, despite having the resources and the expertise to dominate, has not won a championship since 2008 or the drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen’s success a year earlier. While it has been a regular winner, a tally of 29 victories since the start of 2009 represents a win rate of 13%. Not good enough.
Under Binotto, who became team principal ahead of the 2019 season in place of Maurizio Arrivabene, things initially looked promising. But the struggles of this season have led to restructuring to confront some of the long-term weaknesses, as well as the gap created by Binotto switching from his previous role as technical director. A new ‘performance development’ department was created in July under aerodynamics lead Enrico Cardile that the legendary Rory Byrne, who retains an office at Maranello but is semi-retired, also apparently contributes to. The highly-rated aerodynamicist David Sanchez is also a key player in this new division.
“As we said in July, we’re restructuring the technical department,” said Binotto, “Now it’s only a very little time since it happened, and I think normally to see the results of a reorganization, it takes some more time. I’m pretty happy, the way I can feel that the people feel responsible, understand the matter of urgency of our situation and are working hard, are committed, united in the way to progress the car and somehow progress our competitiveness.”