INSIGHT: Why Ferrari might need to fail now in order to succeed later

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INSIGHT: Why Ferrari might need to fail now in order to succeed later

Insights & Analysis

INSIGHT: Why Ferrari might need to fail now in order to succeed later

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Sport, particularly at the elite level, is infested with empty cliches and phrases that, at best, are an over-simplification of real phenomena. That’s not to suggest such sayings universally lack value. The Formula 1 season so far lays bare the fact that there are such things as teams that ‘know how to win’ and those who have yet to develop that ‘winning habit’.

Red Bull and Ferrari have made 2022 a duopoly. The winning tally is 7-4 in Red Bull’s favor during a season when it hasn’t been without blemishes but has nonetheless looked every bit the championship-winner. Ferrari has been quick, but it has also been as uncertain as Red Bull has been sure-footed. In victory, the cracks in the Italian team’s walls have sometimes been visible, while in defeat they have been unmissable.

Red Bull is a team that knows how to win. Max Verstappen claimed the drivers’ title last year, an achievement that no matter how controversial the circumstances earned it a certain self-assuredness. After all, it hadn’t been long since it dominated F1, taking a run of four drivers’ and constructors’ championship doubles from 2010-2013.

Those winning ways were quickly rekindled and only temporarily dampened by fueling problems – one thanks to fuel cavitation and the other thanks to a damaged fuel line – that struck in Bahrain and Australia. Think of last year as a refresher course for a team that had gone seven years without a title; one that ensured it was well-equipped for this year’s fight.

For Ferrari, title success is an increasingly distant memory. Its last title was the constructors’ crown in 2008, one year after its most recent drivers’ title for Kimi Raikkonen. While Red Bull has benefited from a stable leadership regime, Ferrari is now on its third new team principal since that last success in Mattia Binotto.

There have been title fights since then, coming closest but being denied in last-race championship deciders with Fernando Alonso in 2010 and ’12. That 2010 fight, when Ferrari’s strategy was based too narrowly on covering Red Bull driver Mark Webber and a misunderstanding of the tire characteristics – mistaking a short-lived graining phase for sustained degradation – in particular left its scars. As for ’12, that was a title Ferrari will have thought was Alonso’s when Vettel sustained damage on the first lap before battling his way back to a championship-winning position.

Since then, there’s been a mixed bag of bad seasons and illusory title fights. In 2017, Ferrari had a sniff of the title but a car that was not as strong an all-rounder as the Mercedes. Even if Sebastian Vettel had avoided triggering a crash at the start of the Singapore Grand Prix, a race he started on pole position and just three points behind Lewis Hamilton in the title fight, subsequent problems would have made that championship difficult to win.

Facing the wrong way on the first lap in Singapore wasn’t great for Vettel’s title hopes in 2017, although it likely wouldn’t have changed the final outcome. Sam Bloxham/Motorsport Images

The following season was a different story. Vettel made a litany of errors that year costing significant points, but it’s fair to say Ferrari as a wider team also made its contribution to that underachievement. That preceded a 2019 season in which Ferrari was capable of great speed, but managed to win only three races. Just as in 2022, its conversation rate of possible wins to actual victories was poor.

Ferrari’s wins this year have all been on merit. But Charles Leclerc can point to two other lost victories, the first in Spain where he retired with a failure of the MGU-H and turbocharger while leading and the second at Monaco, where Ferrari dropped the ball strategically by leaving him out on wets too long, then bringing him in for intermediates before costing him time when he switched to slicks by double-stacking him. Leclerc also sees Silverstone as a lost victory, although teammate Carlos Sainz ensured that was still a Ferrari win.

So the victory tally could easily be 6-5 in Ferrari’s favor, which would put a very different complexion on the title fight. Currently, Verstappen leads Leclerc by 38 points while in the constructors’ championship Ferrari is 56 points behind Red Bull. It is conceivable both could be leading with a better-executed season, especially when you consider Red Bull lost big points early on.

Ferrari has done much right this year. It focused on building the understanding of a car built to the all-new technical regulations in testing rather than doing what Red Bull and Mercedes did and throwing a major upgrade at it for the second test. As a result, it hit the ground running and has subsequently developed the car productively to mitigate its porpoising problems and also improve the car’s straightline speed with a more efficient rear wing first used by Leclerc in Canada. Its aerodynamic development program has been a genuine success.

Then we come to the power unit, which is very much the mixed blessing at the heart of Ferrari’s season. Ferrari took a big hit with its power unit in 2020 when, following an investigation by the FIA that suspected it was running its engine package illegally at times but could prove nothing, it collaborated with the rule-makers to formulate technical directives tightening up the regulations. Not by coincidence, that led to Ferrari having a terrible season, primarily thanks to its newfound power unit weaknesses, compounded by the fact it now had a car with drag levels that didn’t work with the available bhp.

Ferrari improved its power unit in 2021, and took another significant step this year. In particular, it performs strongly off slower corners to give Ferrari-engined cars a significant kick coming onto the straights and is now reckoned to be ahead of the Mercedes power unit in all-round performance and at a similar level to the Honda powering Verstappen’s car. It was critical Ferrari made that step this year given the imposition of the engine freeze, with all the components frozen during the season and for the following five years.

But that came at a cost – reliability. Sainz, in Austria, and Leclerc, in Azerbaijan, have both suffered failures of the V6 itself, while wider power unit problems have also struck regularly. Both will undoubtedly be forced to take power unit component penalties during the remaining 11 races of the season; the only question is how many. Sainz is on the brink of a first penalty, while Leclerc has already taken his first – starting at the back in Canada after changes triggered by a need to take a third control electronics of the season.

Ferrari’s aggressive approach to chasing performance has come at some cost to reliability. Andy Hone/Motorsport Images

This can be considered to be an acceptable price to pay for Ferrari given it is permitted to request design changes based on reliability concerns. Your performance is locked, but the reliability is fixable, so it’s only logical to be ultra-aggressive with your design then tidy up the reliability problems later. As Ferrari engine chief Enrico Gualtieri said at the launch of the car, the power unit features “daring design solutions” that emerged from an approach of “taking all necessary risks”.

The question is, how quickly can Ferrari catch up on reliability and will this weakness cost it the title? On the current evidence, the answer is not fast enough and yes, but there’s still a long way to go. As such, the engine strategy can be regarded as a qualified success.

Where things have looked shaky is in terms of the way races are run. Ferrari was once a team that overused team orders – just look at Austria 2002 and Germany 2010, the races that respectively ushered in and ended the impractical team orders ban era. But recently, Ferrari has been far too timid.

At Silverstone, Leclerc was the faster driver, yet from relatively early on, the pitwall was flat-footed in ordering Sainz to let him past. There was even an absurd spell when both had pitted and were close to dropping out of temporary leader Lewis Hamilton’s pit window and were permitted to cost each other time by racing. Later on, Ferrari attempted to deploy a tricky but workable strategy of leaving Leclerc out when the safety car was deployed and pitting Sainz to cover Hamilton. But this was predicated on Sainz then acting as a rear gunner despite being quicker than Leclerc – a general scenario that we can only assume had never been discussed, given Sainz legitimately rejected the situation.

This strategic shakiness had been evident even before 2022, but there’s almost a paralysis at the top of the team where the hope is that the situation will resolve itself without intervention. You can have the policy of letting your drivers race and accept there will be times where it compromises the result, but given that whenever Binotto is asked about the management of the drivers he always stresses the importance of the constructors’ title, the evidence is that this is not the priority. Say what you want about team orders, they aren’t popular but sometimes they are necessary and very often they are effective. Red Bull has a clear hierarchy but Ferrari doesn’t, even though Leclerc has to be considered its best title shot.

This is where the confidence of knowing how to win is so essential. It’s doubly vital at Ferrari, a team that is sensitive to the criticisms of the Italian media and where too often paralysis sets in. The phrase ‘too scared of doing wrong to do good’ encapsulates the problem and explains why too often there are no interventions.

It may be that a year of title-chasing failure is simply what Ferrari needs. It is a long time since it has won a title and, unless you can engineer a significant car advantage, that first breakthrough title often needs to be preceded by a failure. After all, Red Bull should have beaten Brawn to the 2009 title but squandered too many chances before emerging as a title-winner the following season.

Absurd as this might seem for a team that has won 242 races and a combined total of 31 constructors’ and drivers’ titles, 2022 might conceivably be part of the learning curve Ferrari has to endure as it learns how to win again. If that’s the case, it is a real test of the team’s culture and leadership, as the process is not simply losing, but ensuring the lessons of failures are learned and sharpness improved as a result.

If this happens then 2022 will be an essential year in Ferrari’s re-emergence. If not, it will just be another failure in an era when F1’s most famous team has consistently flattered to deceive.

MX-5 CUP | ROUND 9 – ROAD AMERICA

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