“Now Ferrari have refound their mojo, the fight between comeback kid Sebastian Vettel and newly crowned triple champ Lewis Hamilton could be 2016’s hottest story,” predicted F1 Racing magazine recently.
And they’re not alone in this view. Next year will be different many say. Yes Mercedes has been dominant but Ferrari’s forward step in 2015 was vast, and a similar step forward this time too will mean the Italian team, and more to the point Vettel, will be title contenders in 2016. And that fight will be one to relish.
Ferrari’s turnaround between 2015 and the season before could hardly have been more decisive, especially in this modern age of development-restricted F1. Especially also given how positively awful 2014 had been for the Scuderia. Zero wins in a season for the first time since 1993, converted to three triumphs in 2015 and plenty of respectability. Losing the man many thought by far the best thing about the team in Fernando Alonso, but replaced by an entirely reinvigorated Sebastian Vettel, with whom you can hardly see the join. A seemingly never-ending piling up of discarded technical and other staff proceeded by something like harmony.
Topping it all off as the 2014 season finished its team principal Marco Mattiacci – himself only in the job since the spring – was unexpectedly and mysteriously jettisoned, not only from the F1 team but from the company altogether. Three team principals in not much more than six months must have been a record even for Ferrari. It all seemed right from the pits of the team’s worst days.
Yet in among it all it came together for Ferrari in 2015. We can start at the top, and with the guy wielding those long knives. Sergio Marchionne, chairman of FIAT, installed himself as Ferrari chairman too thanks very much in Luca Montezemolo’s stead in the late part of 2014. And is both in style and in previous deed one not to be messed with. Nigel Roebuck from talking to a veteran Italian journalist and being told the Italian term used to describe him, said: “the nearest we could come up with in English was ‘bruiser'”. His colleague warned, “Believe me, this is a tough and ruthless guy…”.
“He told me no lie,” Roebuck went on. “When I started to look into Marchionne’s CV, it was difficult not to be impressed. Chairman of FIAT, chairman of Chrysler Group, chairman of SGS (a Swiss-based multinational company with 80,000 employees)… on and on, to the point that one wondered where on earth he found the time to do all this.” We could add too turning the FIAT company into a major global force as his most recent accomplishment.
Early in his reign at Ferrari, just before deposing Montezemolo, Marchionne proposed “to kick some ass…and we’ve got to do it quickly. We might screw up, but we’ve got nothing to lose, right? Let’s risk something…” And he has.
Then we have the newer new team principal Maurizio Arrivabene, the former Marlboro figure brought in at the 11th hour of the 2014 calendar year to fill Mattiacci’s vacated chair. He quickly got his feet under the table, not only charming everyone but also identifying smartly where the squad needed to focus. In 2015’s pre-season he spoke of creating an atmosphere wherein team members would not feel cowed from making decisions, an oft-observed problem down Maranello way in previous years (indeed in previous decades, on and off). “When people are under pressure, with everybody trying to cover themselves, this creates a kind of mess into the team” he noted pointedly.
James Allen outlined too that Arrivabene’s lack of technical knowledge is not an impediment: “Arrivabene isn’t a racing guy, he’s a manager, he’s a commercial guy, but he knows that he has to listen to others. And I think to be boss at Ferrari you need to be in charge, but you also need a very strong technical guy alongside you. I think that was [former team principal Stefano] Domenicali’s weakness…but Arrivabene has been around Ferrari long enough to know that’s the only way it works – Jean Todt-Ross Brawn, that’s how you go racing. And if you look at Mercedes it’s Toto Wolff-Paddy Lowe, it’s no coincidence that those combinations win”.
Which brings us to an element of modern Ferrari that can scarcely be argued with, that in its ‘very strong technical guy’ James Allison it has just about the most highly-rated out there in the post-Adrian Newey landscape. And when asked if Allison could be the next Brawn, Allen’s praise was high: “It’s an interesting comparison because of course he was mentored by Ross Brawn. I like James a lot, I like the combination of his creativity, which we saw in his Lotus days, but also his discipline. His father was the chief of the Royal Air Force so he grew up in a military family and he’s got a real iron discipline…
“He knows what it takes to win because he was part of that Ross Brawn-Michael Schumacher-Jean Todt era of Ferrari, and I think now him coming of age – around about late 40s, early 50s – he’s got absolutely everything it takes to be the new Ross Brawn, definitely”.
Then there is the core of Ferrari’s 2015 improvement. “They threw the kitchen sink, and a lot of money, at fixing” 2014’s underperforming power unit said Allen, and this formed the “real bedrock of their challenge in 2015” as the unit proved to be “quite close to the Mercedes”. And this has had a multiplied effect too, as given only Mercedes and Ferrari produce good engines it lends them considerable power in more ways than one. Rivals have a choice, and an uninviting one: either to get with them as a customer – and be under their control – or struggle with a breathless alternative unit. As a certain decorated team found out in 2015 you cross them at your peril.
Ferrari improved in auxiliary areas also. “What I thought was very impressive was two things actually,” Allen went on, “first is strategy, they were very aggressive on strategy, James Allison’s team…and the other thing that was impressive was qualifying speed. Now you get that with Vettel, he’s class leading, but also it’s not been a quality of Ferrari for a long long time, Alonso only had four poles in his whole Ferrari career. You’re going back a long long way for the last time Ferrari were dominant in qualifying. So that was very very impressive…”
In something redolent of Ferrari’s days of dominance under Todt et al the team also had all of its political weight on show in 2015. Marchionne lost no time in throwing this weight around, including attending Strategy Group and F1 Commission meetings and treating his former underling FIA boss Jean Todt as if nothing had changed in that regard. According to Dieter Rencken and others it’s all to the end of maximising the Scuderia’s commercial take from the sport, reflecting the new company priorities under Marchionne’s leadership. To the extent that now we have a full-on standoff between the manufacturers, led by Marchionne, and Bernie Ecclestone over the sport’s power and money.
even if Ferrari takes the same size bite out of Merc’s advantage they will still have a 0.4% advantage
Ferrari also continues to benefit from a highly generous financial settlement with FOM, more than Mercedes does, due to a $97m annual payment which is regardless of constructors’ placing, and meant that even after its difficult 2014 in which it came a distant fourth in the constructors’ table it still took a larger slice of the money pie than any other team.
So far, so impressive. But time to play the bad fairy at Sleeping Beauty’s christening. Is it just possible that somewhere somehow we all got a bit too excited about the Scuderia and its potential for a title tilt this year? That, rather against the narrative grain, Ferrari’s campaign in 2015 and the improvement from the year before was not really all that it was made out to be?
Many sneered when Alonso from far back in his McLaren suggested as much last season: ‘he would, wouldn’t he?’ said a few, harnessing their full Mandy Rice-Davies. But analysis by F1 Fanatic’s Keith Collantine suggested he might have had a point. Ferrari got closer to Mercedes, of course it did, with its average deficit on ultimate pace going from 1.14% in 2014 to 0.77% in 2015. But this 2015 deficit is according to Collantine “comparable to where they were in 2012 and 2013, when Alonso’s patience was wearing thin”. It also means that for all of the plaudits Ferrari got last season it only in fact made up around a third of the pace gap to the silver standard-bearers. Perhaps it says something about how expectations influence perceptions. Allen indeed even with his praise of Ferrari in 2015, when asked to explain the extent of the ‘resurgence’ the first thing he said was “they came from a long way back”.
The appearance of the Ferrari step up also was amplified by Merc’s closest 2014 challengers Red Bull and Williams falling away from the silver cars’ pace – Red Bull which was second in the 2014 constructors’ table had its deficit to Mercedes grow from 0.96% then to 1.52% in 2015.
And even if Ferrari takes the same size bite out of Merc’s advantage this close season as it did last – and for reasons we’ll come to it’ll be much harder – there still will be a 0.4% Merc advantage which is similar to what Red Bull had over the next lot in 2010 and 2011. Rather sobering.
Here’s another quote to consider. “Oddly enough, despite all the catastrophe going on around the outside of it at the management level, they [Ferrari] could just fluke into a good car next year because it’s the first of the James Allison cars, and the engine this year [in 2014] was deliberately configured to be small and concentrate on heat rejection for the benefit of aerodynamics. Now that’s turned out not to be the way to go. So there’s a big chunk to be easily found there”.
These are the words of Motorsport magazine’s Mark Hughes late in 2014. Prophetic I’m sure you’ll agree. But was that it? Was Ferrari, due to getting it very wrong in 2014, bound to improve in 2015? That the improvement reflects mostly claiming low hanging fruit? And that most of the other good things we’ve attributed to the Scuderia in the last year are merely a reflected glow?
Hughes back in late 2014 suspected so. “They may well…be much more competitive,” he said. “But people might assign the wrong reasons to that. I can see them having a better season year next but not because they changed the management”. In F1 a quick car and good results don’t half take other problems out of view.
To an extent too Ferrari couldn’t lose last season. Expectations were low, everything they achieved was a surprise and the car was a much improved one. In 2016 with the low hanging fruit already claimed further improvements become more difficult.
Perhaps a little worrying for those in red too is that after the big conspicuous gains that Hughes outlined there is little evidence of Ferrari clawing in any of the remaining raw pace gap since. Indeed an analysis on the F1 website had the gap between Ferrari and the front slightly larger in the final three races of 2015 then it was in the opening three. Consider too that as the pursuer there should be, theoretically at least, be more places to go to find lap time due to being at an earlier and steeper point of the learning curve. Consider also that Marchionne has admitted that Ferrari “delayed some things” on the 2016 car in order to extract the most out of its 2015 mount.
Further who is to say how all will react when faced with adversity of which there was very little of last season? As in adversity aspects of character which no hint is given of in the good times can be revealed pitilessly (see Jose Mourinho). And herein lies the flipside of Ferrari’s new-ness in 2015, that there are a few elements in there – Marchionne and Arrivabene most notably – who are yet to be tested by real F1 adversity.
And if there were few expectations around in 2015 that won’t be the case in 2016. Indeed such is Ferrari’s way they could rise sharply. The team isn’t known for its patience either. That there even were rumours mid last year that James Allison could be on the way out might just reveal that Ferrari hasn’t entirely got debilitating wrangles out of its system.
Even for Vettel who appears ensconced at Ferrari after his debut season, there is a minor note of concern that Ferrari’s love affairs with drivers can and have turned sour very rapidly. Take this one. He “breezed into the Italian camp, swept them up behind a whirlwind of revitalised morale and launched himself into an impressive season-long onslaught”. Many journalists, including those near to Maranello, spoke glowingly of him making Ferrari his team. Some likened his leading the team by the nose to Niki Lauda in the mid-1970s heyday. All said of Vettel now? No, but it could have been. In fact it was said of Alain Prost after his first year at Ferrari in 1990. Alain didn’t even last the whole of the following season.
We could go further still. We’ve talked about Marchionne’s political muscle flexing, yet even if his politicking on behalf of the manufacturers helps the Scuderia any rising tide there will lift the Mercedes boat too. It’s also a glaring departure from Ferrari’s previous glory days in the noughties. Then Ferrari benefited from a harmonious, you might even say helpful, relationship with Bernie, Max Mosley and the FIA. Now it’s at loggerheads with them, and as we’ve seen those in such a position can have an invisible hand make things more difficult on track (though on the flipside of the above point given Ferrari and Merc have been thick as thieves this will apply to Ferrari’s chief on-track rival too).
With this, to bring us back to where we came in, it’s difficult to work out where the confidence comes from that Seb will get with the Mercs in 2016. This is not to say it’s impossible for Ferrari to improve – far from it – but there remains some way to go and it only will get harder from here.
Maybe it all shows the perils of believing what we want to believe. As virtually all of us aside from the most unflinching Mercedes die-hards would welcome a multi-team fight at the front after two years of mainly uninterrupted silver dominance. Perhaps it reflects also that the prospect of a Mercedes vs Ferrari – or more to the point Hamilton vs Vettel – scrap is such an enticing one. This was summed up by Peter Windsor at last season’s conclusion: “It could be Stewart-Rindt all over again. Or Senna-Prost. Or Schumacher-Hakkinen. It could be all these and more. It could be a rivalry to mark the end of days.
“Hamilton-Vettel. Mercedes-Ferrari. Silver-red. England-Germany”.
It is indeed tantalising. But unfortunately there is a lot of evidence that, sadly, for 2016 at least, it’ll be outside of reach.