24 June 2019 11:03 PM

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SREELATA S.YELLAMRAZU | 7 JUNE, 2019

Ferrari Needs to Pick Up the Pace, and Soon

Car and strategy troubles hobble the prancing horse


“We can’t afford to do these things. It’s just a big, big disappointment,” fumed Charles LeClerc, slamming the think tank in Ferrari’s pit garage after he was knocked out in the very first qualifying session. This, even as Sebastian Vettel eked out Ferrari’s first podium finish of the season at the Monaco Grand Prix.

But Ferrari’s troubles are far from over, as Mercedes have made a commanding show and are threatening to pull away. Things have not gone according to plan for Scuderia Ferrari, even as the rather busy Formula 1 season now moves to the Gilles-Villeneuve circuit in Montreal.

The Canadian Grand Prix will pose a different set of challenges for Ferrari. Unexpectedly, and far from the promising pre-season testing at Maranello, home of the prancing horse, the scarlet team now finds itself trailing not only Mercedes but also Red Bull, in terms of consistency, traction and leadership.

Ferrari’s troubles in 2019 can be described with four words: car, clarity, complacency and consistency.

There is little doubt that the two drivers, 31 year old Sebastian Vettel and 21 year old Charles LeClerc, have struggled to get a grip on their cars. This has been attributed to tire temperature troubles as well as downforce issues, two issues for which they do not have an immediate solution.

This was emphasised by team principal Mattia Binotto, who took over from Maurizio Arrivabene, saying “We know we are not competitive enough right now, and for the time being, we haven’t got any more changes coming in the car that will have a significant effect on the problems we have encountered since the start of the season.”

On the downforce and front wing issues, Binotto stated the obvious, “I think we’ve got a car that is quite efficient – you can it on the straight. But it doesn’t mean we’ve got the car that has the highest downforce in the pit lane.” While there is little doubt that the Ferraris have straight line speed, they are known to struggle when braking and slow down on the curbs.

Binotto also touched upon the Pirelli tires issue that Ferrari have struggled with this year. Keeping the temperatures and the tires warm has been a bone of contention between the drivers and the team: “The tires this season are quite different to the ones of last year. No blame, it’s only a matter of fact.”

Vettel, for his part, made no bones about the fact that struggles with the car have been overwhelming, even for someone as experienced as himself. “I don’t think the car is as bad as it looks,” he stated after the Monaco Grand Prix, “and the results should be better here and there. But it’s very difficult for us to get the car in the window where it is happy.”

Although the SF90 received upgrades to its engine and chassis ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix, Ferrari have lacked clarity about their best drivers and strategy: some of their decisions, including whether to swap drivers based on pace, and about the cutoff at the qualifying session in Monaco, point to a lack of clarity in the pits as also complacency about making split-second decisions, which is what Formula 1 racing is all about.

Charles LeClerc has come on for Ferrari with a dynamic pace of his own. Thus far, one can dare to say that LeClerc has sometimes outperformed the four-time world champion who has yet to win Ferrari a driver’s championship.

An exasperated LeClerc waited on team orders to ask Vettel to let the Frenchman pass through in Bahrain, when it was obvious he had the pace under him. This has dogged the Ferrari team through the better part of six races this season.

In the end it was engine troubles that cost LeClerc his maiden win in Bahrain, while the issue of team swapping continues to confound Ferrari fans.

Binotto expressed the lingering confusion for Ferrari on the race track, “Should we have done it (swapping of the drivers) earlier? By the time you do it, you need to make sure that the driver behind has got enough pace. It may take a few laps for us to assess that.”

Perhaps Binotto should have swapped the word ‘laps’ for ‘races’ – which is what Ferrari have done in holding back LeClerc when he had the better pace, in trying to safeguard their interests with Vettel’s reliability. It happened at the Bahrain Grand Prix and then again at the Chinese Grand Prix. The mayhem continued at the Spanish Grand Prix, as team strategy took a hit with Vettel with the faster car with only its tires left to cool.

Ferrari have spent more time on indecision about whether to swap, rather than actually swapping mid-race.

“Very difficult one to take” was how LeClerc put it when described the decision that led to his crashing out of the qualifying session in Monaco.

“A misjudgement” was how Ferrari described the reason LeClerc missed the qualifying session because they thought he didn’t need to do another lap, even as the team was focused on Vettel’s qualifying, little realising that he was edging out LeClerc.

Explaining his bewilderment about the qualifying mayhem in his home race, LeClerc told the media, “I asked (the team in the pit garage and pit wall) whether they were sure (about LeClerc being safe). They told me, ‘We think we are.’ I said, ‘Shouldn’t we go out again?’ There were no real answers.”

LeClerc, all of 21, described how that decision mattered in the overall context of his race. “It is disappointing to be out in Q1 in a Ferrari, but even more so at home, and even more on a track like this where you can’t overtake. We had plenty of time. I need some explanations.”

He added, “I’ll have to take a lot of risks in the race – even risking to crash.”

Even as Hamilton has gained a 55 point lead over Vettel in the Mercedes, Ferrari are edgy and nervous and understandably so. For the past two seasons in 2017 and 2018, Vettel has been a distant second, by 46 and 88 points respectively. The four-time champion has been a shadow of himself this season, his hesitation in an uncomfortable car causing the team to bifurcate their interests between the two drivers.

Vettel admitted, amidst rumours of his possible retirement before his contract with Ferrari expires in 2020, that the sailing was far from smooth. After his second-place finish in Monaco he humoured the media with his suggestion to help Ferrari to find “the grip guy”. But he was matter of fact in describing his emotions as “mixed” given that Ferrari, in his opinion, “benefited from mistakes other people made.”

Vettel admitted there is “a lot of work to do” as far as Ferrari are concerned, and that “Mercedes are the benchmark.” He could not have understated either fact.
 

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