Mid-season F1 review: Ferrari falters at every hurdle

Charles Leclerc in action for Ferrari

Ferrari had genuine pre-season pace but Mercedes pulled clear, it failed to keep up, and then skewered itself further with a litany of setbacks. Motorsport Week reflects on a disappointing spell for the Prancing Horse.

High point: Pre-season testing

Low point: What came after...

Ferrari caught the eye during pre-season testing and there was genuine expectation that the SF90 could be the car to deliver the title back to Maranello after a wait of more than a decade. The low-drag SF90 looked compliant on-track and its drivers were gleefully trying to retain their enthusiasm. Even after the opening two events there was optimism, but the following rounds proved that Bahrain – not Australia – was the outlier, and that Ferrari still had work to do. Pace-wise Ferrari has lagged behind Mercedes at most venues, with the W10’s facelift prior to Australia lifting it to a new level that meant, with hindsight, the pre-season picture was actually distorted. The SF90’s weaknesses have been most pronounced at slow- and medium-speed downforce-heavy venues, with Ferrari accepting that its pursuit of straight-line speed left it compromised.

That was most brutally exposed in Spain, France and Hungary, where it was a substantial chunk off the pace, sliding the tyres and thus losing even more time. Ferrari has brought updates but they have not yet had the desired transformative effect, with not all of the new components introduced in France yielding the anticipated gains. From being level with Mercedes pre-season to 60 seconds down after 70 laps in Hungary neatly underlined how Ferrari has fallen from the development curve. “I think we are lacking maximum downforce, and obviously there are circuits where we are not running to the maximum downforce configurations, so in that case it will be different,” said team boss Mattia Binotto, whose calming influence as Team Principal has nonetheless been opposed by questions about the hole he has left in the technical department, where he played a crucial role in Ferrari’s 2017/18 rise. “Certainly we are seeking more downforce already on this current season. In the second half of the season we will try and put whatever max downforce we can put on the car and the car next year will require even more.”

Ferrari’s glaring weakness has been downforce but its advantage has been its pure power output – even if the balance between the two has not been ideally met. Ferrari’s grunt has lifted it above Mercedes in the power stakes, which was best demonstrated at venues such as Bahrain, Canada and Austria, where the SF90 set the benchmark. But those power unit gains have come at a price. A couple of pre-season stoppages meant reliability was flagged as a potential weakness and critical failures have occurred at vital moments. The highest-profile was the cylinder loss that hobbled Charles Leclerc from a race-winning position in Bahrain, while the qualifying issues in Austria and Germany also came at highly inopportune times, having displayed strong pace during practice. Ferrari’s proficiency as spurning chances has become so commonplace that they have almost become inevitable.  

Out of the top three teams Ferrari has also tended to be weakest strategically. Some of the early team orders were unnecessary and only raised unwarranted questions, but of greater concern was the pit strategies and decision-making processes at some events. The biggest of those was the choice to leave Leclerc in the garage in Q1 in Monaco, only to watch on helplessly when Sebastian Vettel improved sufficiently to knock out the home hero. The whole Canada appeal process was also lamentably misjudged. It still has circuits at which it should be rapid – Monza springs to mind – but that its best hope for 2019 is now picking up a handful of wins, and getting itself in the best shape for 2020, signals how its ambitions have had to be reset.

Sebastian Vettel was brutally honest in Hungary when he rated his season a 5/10. It has not been a glorious year for the four-time champion, whose post-summer victory in Belgium that was supposed to kick-start his 2018 title run remains his most recent success. There have been a few lows: the spin in Bahrain, a perplexingly average Q3 in France, and the misjudgement in Britain with Max Verstappen. His brilliant performance in Canada – wrestling the slower and fuel-limited SF90 – should have netted a win but another minor error, and harsh penalty, put paid to that. Vettel has spoken of feeling comfortable with the SF90 pre-season but struggling to replicate that feeling thereafter, leaving him fighting an uphill battle. “I need to be critical of myself because here and there I didn’t do the best job,” said an open Vettel in Hungary. “So that’s something that I need to focus on and need to get better in the second half of the season, which needs addressing. Other than that I think it was a bit up and down, some races were better, some races were worse. But certainly the last couple of races where maybe a bit better for me, whereas some races in the beginning I struggled a bit more when we tried a lot of things.” The mitigating factor is that even if Vettel had executed a perfect season he would still only be a distant player in the title hunt. The 94-point gap to Lewis Hamilton is not all down to driver deficiency. His quest to emulate past Ferrari champions goes on but, with Leclerc growing in confidence, and a renewed threat from Red Bull, there remains an underlying feeling that his best chance may already have gone.

One of the tantalising talking points of 2019 was how Leclerc would cope with the step up to Ferrari, aged just 21, in just his second season. So far, so good… largely. He has grown as the season developed, having admitted to early nerves while settling in, and has become more outspoken as to what he needs from the SF90. An altered approach yielded greater speed in France, while set-up gains in Austria left him more assured with the front-end feel. He allayed any fears over his ultimate pace early on with his sublime Bahrain display, a performance which earned him widespread respect, and battled back from that bullying from Verstappen in Austria with a superb spell of wheel-to-wheel racing in Britain. He also recognised a Q3 weakness – having often failed to build upon Q1 and Q2 displays – and in recent events has been more in contention when it matters. There have, though, been character-building setbacks. The Azerbaijan Q2 crash was ill-judged, his mistake in Germany came after more than one warning while in Hungary he was fortunate that his Q1 escapade did not spell the end of his session. And while Ferrari wrecked his Monaco prospects in qualifying his subsequent race display, most prominently his floor-damaging antics upon getting a puncture, was riddled with impetuousness. But when compared, for example, to the likes of Hamilton’s 2008 season and Vettel’s 2009 season (second full seasons with big teams) these are all normal developments in a driver’s career. Leclerc has probably been helped by Ferrari slipping back on its 2018 displays, allowing him to get accustomed to the nuances of the team without needing to be in the midst of a title fight, ironing out those mistakes from his system. He has a huge benefit in being partnered with a champion of Vettel’s stature, and has already recognised tyre usage and more precise feedback as areas where he can improve. He should have one win, could have two, and might have had three, but for now he sits on zero – a statistic that should surely be eradicated before Abu Dhabi.