Ferrari was unable to usher in the new Formula 1 season in the same vintage style it did a year ago with victory in the Bahrain Grand Prix – but just how damaging was its emphatic defeat at the hands of Red Bull, and what are the challenges facing Fred Vasseur in turning around his flailing team’s fortunes?
Despite its eventual hefty points defeat to Red Bull by the end of the season, the 2022 campaign could be looked back at as a positive step in the right direction for Ferrari.
After two years spent middling in midfield mediocrity, the Maranello-based outfit made a huge stride at the beginning of the sport’s latest technical era to storm out of the blocks with the fastest car.
Such evident progression was supposed to be the catalyst for Ferrari to right the wrongs of last year and develop into a stronger, more formidable title contender this time around.
However, following a disastrous and problematic season opener in varying ways, the Scuderia’s championship aspirations seem to be on the verge of collapse only a single race into the latest campaign.
A complete engine shutdown for Charles Leclerc in the closing stages and excessive tyre degradation concerns for Carlos Sainz saw neither Ferrari driver end up on the podium, at the expense of an Aston Martin team that languished down in seventh place last season.
Even accounting for Leclerc reaching the chequered flag, a third place would have only served to represent damage limitations in terms of Ferrari’s overall performance. At the time of his stoppage on Lap 39, Leclerc was already a harrowing 25s behind Max Verstappen in the race lead, having been comfortably repassed by Sergio Perez after taking second place at the start.
With the two Bulls likely coasting, the gap could have been even bigger. Leclerc, however, couldn’t have done more in taking the fight to them; the Monegasque driver was 9s down the road from his struggling team-mate and faring much better in machinery possessing evident limitations.
The disturbing combination of lacklustre pace and early reliability concerns has pictured Leclerc’s hopes of going one better than last season already appear in tatters. His retirement and victory for Verstappen in Bahrain have enabled the reigning champion to already build up a 25-point advantage over his nearest challenger from last season.
Without a retirement for Verstappen, it would take Leclerc winning four races – on the basis that the lead Red Bull racer was second – for the points deficit to be overturned. Ferrari, however, struggled to only four wins last season with a much more competitive package relative to what the 2023 Bahrain GP suggested it might have this year.
In Verstappen, meanwhile, Red Bull has a driver that is relentlessly consistent and the Austrian outfit is vastly more refined than Ferrari in every department. Although the eternal optimists among the Ferrari fanbase will point to Red Bull’s downfall at the beginning of last year – that left Verstappen 43 points behind inside three rounds – the situations are not remotely comparable.
Despite carrying an overweight car at the start of last season, Red Bull was still in contention for victory in Bahrain up to the point Verstappen hit trouble. On the other hand, the Ferrari SF-23 – in the hands of Leclerc, at least – was around 0.65s a lap down on average across the first stint.
Consequently, if Vasseur thought Ferrari would be a difficult role coming into it from the perennial midfield environment of the Sauber-owned Alfa Romeo outfit, the French boss has likely realised how difficult it will be to reshape an organisation that has been rooted in failure ever since 2008.
An element of credit should be given to Binotto for the progressive turnaround he made during his four seasons at the helm. The Italian, a veteran at Ferrari for over 20 years, managed to oversee the construction of a car at the start of the newest technical regulations in 2022 that could contest for victories after successive winless seasons beforehand.
But with Vasseur not arriving until January, the SF-23 was predominantly a product of Binotto’s work. Despite claims to the contrary throughout the winter, it seems – on the evidence of Bahrain – that the two biggest shortcomings of last season’s car have failed to be resolved from the outset.
With the introduction of an engine freeze at the start of last year, Ferrari pushed the boundaries on performance in a bid to catch up on a prevalent horsepower deficit. Subsequently, power unit failures unravelled Ferrari’s surging start, with Leclerc retiring from the race lead in both Azerbaijan and Spain, which also led to grid penalties as early as the ninth round.
But with improvements to reliability still permitted, the team was confident it had rectified its issues. Bahrain, however, suggested that it has not dispelled its powertrain woes from last season, and an internal period of head-scratching is now underway back at its Maranello headquarters, with Leclerc already primed for a grid drop after a solitary race in a record-breaking 23-round calendar in 2023.
Furthermore, a repeat of its tyre degradation troubles from last year saw Ferrari’s promise in qualifying dissipate into thin air on Sunday evening. Although Leclerc was able to manage the situation admirably to be clear of the chasing pack, he was unable to replicate the Red Bull drivers in running two sets of Soft tyres in the race, while Sainz fell into the clutches of Fernando Alonso in the Aston Martin – the Spaniard admitting afterwards he was concerned by the green team’s impressive race pace.
The SF-23 may yet go on to prove it does have more underlying potential than last season’s F1-75, but the wind tunnel numbers out of Maranello haven’t translated to the track thus far and the clock is ticking on Ferrari’s dwindling title chances for this year.
Starting the season massively on the back foot isn’t good enough for a team with the infrastructure and resources of Ferrari, having worked on developing this car since last July and sacrificing the competitive base of its competitive 2022 car in the process.
But the buck doesn’t solely stop with Binotto. If Ferrari’s Bahrain form continues into the rest of the season, Vasseur will surely begin to ponder whether the existing technical personnel in place, as well as the approaches taken, is a bigger issue than he might have initially envisaged.
Aston Martin has shown the upside to deploying a widespread recruitment policy from other top teams, with notable arrivals including Eric Blandin and Dan Fallows from Mercedes and Red Bull respectively. The AMR23 has subsequently proven to be a significant improvement on its predecessor, and Aston Martin now looks in a position to challenge for second in the Constructors’ Championship after finishing as low as seventh the previous two seasons.
The Silverstone-based entity is set to deploy an aggressive development strategy to build on its impressive start, while Red Bull has always been strong in that department. Ferrari, by comparison, has struggled to be on the front foot when it comes to in-season development in recent times.
Bahrain could eventually emerge as an anomaly. Ferrari is hoping that the rear-limited nature of the Sakhir circuit exacerbated its struggles and the high-speed Jeddah Street track in Saudi Arabia, packed with high-speed corners and multiple long straight, should make it a much more favourable experience for its SF-23 package.
Both Verstappen and Red Bull team principal Christian Horner have conveyed a similar caution, believing the nature of the Bahrain asphalt and other characteristics accentuated its margin of superiority to the competition. But, nevertheless, the reigning champions do look unstoppable.
Sadly for Ferrari, it appears the famed squad is resigned to yet another building year as its prolonged championship drought rolls on. While title success looks out of reach, the Italian side can still make a success of this season by ensuring that positive steps are made early in Vasseur’s tenure.
Those developments will take place with the small matter of Leclerc’s contract talks to consider. The Monegasque’s current contract runs out at the close of 2024 and he has reiterated his desire to wait to see how Ferrari’s performance develops before discussing new talks.
Ferrari’s dismal Bahrain showing wouldn’t have helped its chances of retaining its star protégé. But Leclerc’s battling drive in Sakhir has probably improved his bargaining position and showcased how vital his existence within the Ferrari set-up is to the success of Vasseur’s project.
While Sainz has authorised himself as a steady, second-tier option, the Spaniard doesn’t possess that extra star quality that separates the elite from the merely good. In a car that currently has a fundamental front-end limitation, Sainz was lapping 0.8s a lap slower than Leclerc on average.
The only positive that could be salvaged from Ferrari’s contentiously poor weekend was its decision to save a set of Soft tyres on Leclerc’s side of the garage in qualifying; that level of smart, intuitive forward-thinking is something that has been regularly missing on the Ferrari pit wall in years gone by.
But, as Leclerc was quick to express in the aftermath, nothing about Ferrari’s Bahrain GP should be viewed in a positive light.
Amid a period of uncertainty, one thing is for certain: the reaction that originates from Maranello in the forthcoming months will be pivotal for Vasseur’s chances of making a success of his stint in red. Failure to impose the right changes could witness the poisoned chalice of the Ferrari hot seat open its revolving door once more.