Feature: Has Ferrari blown it already?
They say you can’t win a race on lap one, yet you can most certainly lose it. The equivalent it seems applies to championships, certainly on the basis of recent evidence. Just four rounds in, good luck finding anyone who thinks Ferrari can salvage its 2019 Formula 1 season.
It hardly could represent a more dramatic shift either. We are but six weeks on from all heading to Melbourne’s season-opener thinking assuredly that, based on pre-season testing, Ferrari was the team to beat. That this might even be the year that it at last takes its first title since 2008.
It wasn’t the usual smoke and mirrors either. All rival squads, including Mercedes, felt sure on this point. ‘Sandbagging’, as people often like to suggest when testing predictions are confounded, isn’t really a thing these days.
Yet Mercedes has claimed four 1-2 finishes from the first four races, the first team ever to start a season with such a dominant run, beating the previous record of three 1-2s off the bat set by the imperious Williams FW14B in 1992. Ferrari for its part has been off the pace for a lot of this time and, especially, wayward in its operations.
The 1992 example cited ended with the titles wrapped up in August. Indeed any driver or team claiming more than two races on the trot at the start of an F1 season ends with that year’s championship without fail. So for 2019 do the math. Ferrari, already, perhaps has blown it.
But things might not be that simple, even with topline historical evidence heading only in one direction.
Take Nico Rosberg in 2016. He won the opening four races, and indeed took the crown that year in the end. But it’s easy to forget that come just round 11 in Hungary Lewis Hamilton in fact had overtaken him at the table top, before subsequent failings let Rosberg back in. In other words, there was nothing necessarily insurmountable about Rosberg’s early accumulation of wins and resultant points.
And that’s often the problem with historic trends; things have a maddening tendency to overlap so it’s tricky to disentangle the influence that each individual factor has independent of the others. Williams winning the first five races in 1992 and Williams then easing to the ‘92 titles reflected one and the same thing – that the FW14B was insultingly superior to its opposition – rather than the first part causing the second. Same goes with Michael Schumacher and Ferrari winning the first five races of 2004 – three of those were Ferrari 1-2s as well. The titles were cruised to due to the vast pace superiority, not (just) that their early points advantage made them safe.
We know as much from the – necessarily very rare – cases where early dominance in results does not reflect an inherent pace advantage. The case with Rosberg in 2016 is instructive. Rosberg with all due respect rarely had much of an inherent pace advantage over team-mate and rival Hamilton, and his experience that year showed that in such a situation early points leads can still be lost quickly.
For Ferrari in 2019 all is not yet lost, so long as its car can be got right
There was a similar example in 1991; one which may give Ferrari the most hope of all. Reigning champion Ayrton Senna won the opening four rounds, often by a long way, which gave him a 29 point advantage (in the age of 10 points for a win, so pushing 75 points in today’s money). This was almost a quarter of the 120 points remaining available even at that relatively early stage of the campaign. McLaren also had won the previous three championship doubles, so almost all thought it was over already.
But one person emphatically not persuaded was the man himself. Senna had been glum about his 1991 mount ever since returning on the season’s eve from his winter in Brazil. “It’s not good enough,” he declared just after sampling the car for the first time, “they have not made sufficient progress”. Four wins from the first four later, and most dismissed the words as odd melodrama.
But Senna in fact was right. The Williams FW14 had the McLaren’s legs, and for once McLaren was being let down by its Honda engine. The Japanese concern had for that season changed to V12s from V10s, and the new unit was seriously overweight, fuel-thirsty and was not even producing the anticipated power.
Senna’s four season-opening wins all had peculiar circumstances too. Two of them were on street circuits where Senna always excelled; the other two Senna may well have been beaten by Williams had it been reliable. At this stage though the FW14 was still having plenty of teething problems, particularly with its new paddleshift gearbox.
One circumstance helps Ferrari. The Mercedes pair has split the wins evenly; it’s left them still just about within reach in the championship standings
Yet after these first four rounds Williams really hit its stride and Mansell as soon as after round nine at Hockenheim was within striking range – just eight points off Senna at the top.
As it was, Senna still won the title. There remained a bit more Williams unreliability to come (and, in Portugal, calamity); Senna’s brilliance and consistency did the rest. Yet even after its sticky start, the points Williams threw away subsequently would have been more than enough to shift the championship in its direction.
And the relevance of this historical retread to our point at hand? It shows that for Ferrari in 2019 all is not yet lost, so long as its car can be got right.
Yet there is a problem even so. Ferrari’s in a situation where it can’t afford to drop many more – perhaps any more – clangers. And which team would you hardly bet your life on not to do that… On the evidence of 2019 so far Ferrari’s clangers can be dropped in pretty much any area, including those that the rest of us would not so much as have considered.
One circumstance at least helps Ferrari this time though. That the Mercedes pair has split the wins evenly, as it’s left them still just about within reach in the championship standings. Valtteri Bottas tops the pile currently on 87 points with stable-mate Hamilton a point shy. Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel meanwhile is 35 points off the summit with 52; his team-mate Charles Leclerc 40 off on 47. Significant gaps, but not unbridgeable ones. Particularly not with 17 rounds remaining.
And particularly not with a car that might, just might, still be the best if all can be got right with it. Some might scoff at the notion, but at the very least it’s not impossible. Testing as noted suggested this sort of latent advantage, as did the Bahrain round which was only lost due to a late technical failure (and driver error in the other car). Ferrari might have won in Baku as well had Leclerc not binned it in qualifying. Taking this counterfactual to its conclusion, all of a sudden Ferrari would have a 50% win rate, even with its underperformance.
We have a very strong car. There’s nothing wrong with it but I think we’re not able to yet put it in the window - Sebastian Vettel
Ferrari can also point at the mitigating circumstance that all four season-opening race tracks are for their own reasons atypical. Melbourne is a temporary parkland track with a low-grip surface. Bahrain taxes rear tyres like no other, and the night race in the desert also has unique and varying ambient temperature challenges. China is an outlying track in being ‘front-limited’ (F1 parlance for challenging front-end grip much more than rear). Baku is a wacky street circuit. You can add to the mitigating circumstances that in Melbourne Ferrari had to run its engine in a compromised state due to a cooling concern, something fixed by Bahrain’s round two.
Maybe with more standard tracks coming up the Barcelona testing sweet spot will be rediscovered more regularly? Vettel for one seems to think so. “We have a very strong car,” he said after China. “There’s nothing wrong with it but I think we’re not able to yet put it in the window.”
“A lot of homework for us, the last couple of weeks,” he added post-Baku. “I’m sure once we get everything together the car is strong and then we will be much more in the fight.”
Yet it is equally clear that whatever the mitigating circumstances, the Ferrari’s testing form has in the main not been replicated in the four races so far. The main culprit identified in dispatches is a shortage of front-end grip. And in F1 nothing succeeds like failure; Ferrari as a result of its problem has reportedly gone to extreme outlying solutions just to achieve an aero balance, with obvious implications for lap times.
“Does that [the front-end grip problem] mean a rethink of the aero philosophy around the front wing, with its tapered outer-ends to promote outwash?,” asked Mark Hughes recently. “This would have major implications upon the rest of the car. Or is it possible to correct the aero imbalance within the existing philosophy? In which case this might all just be an early-season blip rather than a designed-in shortfall.”
Ferrari’s season hinges on the answer to this question.
Has Ferrari blown it? Despite everything, it’s still a bit soon to conclude as much.