Rather than chase a hat-trick of Spa successes Ferrari is facing a battle to even escape from the first segment of qualifying.
Leclerc classified 15th, Vettel 17th, over 1.6s off the pace, split by Williams’ George Russell. A year ago Leclerc qualified five seconds faster than Russell.
The backmarker group in 2020 has typically consisted of Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams, but in FP2 the Swiss cars were clinging to the midfield group, half a second faster than their engine supplier.
It wasn’t a one-session anomaly; the Ferrari drivers were only 14th and 15th in FP1, classifying in front of just the Williams pair, as neither Haas racer not Alfa Romeo’s Antonio Giovinazzi set a time due to engine-related issues (those engines being Ferraris).
“Yeah, a very difficult day,” surmised a downbeat Leclerc. “I think it’s probably a surprise to be so far back, especially in FP2.”
Another dispiriting aspect for the team was the absence of pace appeared in conjunction with set-up struggles, leaving a substantial amount of work ahead of Saturday’s action. The SF1000s largely ran with a very low downforce set-up, ostensibly to compensate for the lack of straight-line speed, but then this also hurt its performance through the middle sector of the lap.
“We tried quite a lot of things in FP2,” said Leclerc. “At the beginning I tried something quite aggressive in downforce levels but it didn’t really work out so we came back on that.
“Yeah, we are just lacking pace at the moment. We need to work hard to catch back [up] but I don’t expect miracles for this weekend.”
“The car was difficult and tricky to drive,” commented Vettel. “That also means that we are not quite where we should be. We’re looking currently to find options with the set-up, we tried a lot this afternoon. We will reset and try again, and try something different.”
Team boss Mattia Binotto suggested that the way the SF1000 used Pirelli’s notoriously capricious rubber had an influence on its lacklustre display.
“Certainly we are not competitive today, both FP1 and FP2, we struggled to make the tyres work, so we were lacking grip both in braking and acceleration, gave no overall performance to the car,” he said.
“I think that’s not the potential of our car, not the normal position at least for our car of today, if you compare where we are on the grid and relative competitiveness to others.
“We have to understand why we are not bringing the tyres to the right window. Generally speaking if you don’t find the right window on tyres, and not making them working, then you are not fast in sector two, and then you are slow in all three sectors as a consequence.”
It wasn’t always like this – at least for Leclerc, who revealed that “in testing I was pretty happy with the balance but the pace was just not here.
“Today it’s mostly problems with the balance so we are really, really struggling with the balance of the car.
“We need to understand what we can do better to try and help us drivers to be driving at our best.
“I think it’s going to be difficult if we don’t find any solution to fix the balance problems we have today.”
An alternative strategy, drama elsewhere or even rain would all play into Ferrari’s hands. The clouds unleashed a torrent of water on Friday evening, complete with flashes of lightning, shrouding the venue in mist. Porsche Supercup’s practice was correctly abandoned.
But a team of its stature should not need to be looking for another way out. That it is no longer a shocking talking point, or a jarring result, also speaks volumes.
And if its current performance wasn’t chastening enough then the next two events take place on home soil in Italy, at the high-speed Monza circuit and the Mugello venue that it owns.
Friday could merely be an aperitif for several more courses of humiliation.