The story behind Ferrari’s re emergence as Formula 1 title contenders

(Motorsport) The fact that Formula 1’s most successful team has not won a Drivers or Constructors Championship since over a decade has always been a head scratching statistic. Ferrari have had the drivers, resources and the fan following throughout the ‘lean’ years, yet the Italian team simply trailed behind both Mercedes and Red Bull throughout the hybrid era. Sure, there was the occasional podium finish and glimpses of their past glory, however, it's clear as day that the team were a shadow of their former selves and seemed to have no idea how to get out of the rut. 

Fast forward to this season and it’s a completely different story. Ferrari have arguably been the fastest car on the grid, only to be let down by poor strategy, individual mistakes and bad luck. By all intents and purposes, it’s a genuine wonder why they aren't at the top of both the Drivers and Constructors Championships. Charles Leclerc has consistently outperformed world champion Max Verstappen in qualifying in most of the races so far, but circumstances have resulted in Red Bull having the last laugh in the race itself. One thing cannot be ignored is that Ferrari are now closer to being genuine title contenders than ever before (at least in the last decade) and there are plenty of underlying reasons for it.

In an exclusive interview with the BBC, Mattia Binotto, Principal of Scuderia Ferrari was asked for the reason behind Ferrari’s performance this season. The 52 year old said “It's an interesting question but also a difficult one. The right reasons do not come [down] to the technical aspect, that we changed the [engine] combustion, [and] we improved our aerodynamics. That's [only] the consequence. It is about building a team. The effort put in since 2017 has been step by step to build the right team. And with the right team, you can achieve the goals and targets. It's all about the team." 

The situation Ferrari find themselves in is eerily similar to five years ago when the Italian manufacturer was considered title contenders as well. Just like this time, Formula 1 was entering into a new era of regulations and Ferrari’s technical team developed a car that could seriously rival Mercedes in the title race. Four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel dominated two thirds of the season, only to be outperformed by Lewis Hamilton in the final few races. The pattern continued the following year, resulting in the then team boss Maurizio Arrivabene being replaced by Mattia Binotto. 

Reflecting on Ferrari’s past mistakes, Binotto said “As a team, we had already proved we had a good level of creativity and were capable of interpreting new rules and the car we made was a good one – the baseline, in terms of concept and idea. As a matter of fact, in the following years, the other teams copied our solutions. When I jumped into the role of team principal, I said it was a very young team. It was not that we were young in terms of age – I was 50 at the time. 

“But we were young in our roles. We needed to build the experience. What we lacked in 2017, 2018 and 2019 [was that] we were not capable of developing the car. In 2017, we had reliability issues. We had our drivers crashing into each other, but we also had a team not strong enough in terms of culture and mentality. And on top of that, we didn't have the right tools simply because we brought in developments that were not working as expected. We were good in terms of potential but green in terms of experience and tools." 

It was clear as day that the issue was not just with the drivers but also the facilities at Maranello. The end of the 2018 season saw Kimi Raikkonen depart after five underwhelming seasons and Ferrari gambled on young Charles Leclerc, who only had one season under his belt in Formula 1 after racing for Sauber. The faith in Leclerc was shown largely by Ferrari's former chairman and chief executive Sergio Marchionne who was unconvinced by Sebastian Vettel and wanted a driver who, while inexperienced, had the raw talent which could be harnessed to develop a future world champion. 

The gamble paid off and Leclerc began outperforming Vettel, finishing on pole in Bahrain in only his second race for Ferrari but lost out on the race due to an engine problem in his car. Eventually, Ferrari and Leclerc proved to be a formidable partnership, with the pair taking seven pole positions and drawing the attention of their rivals. What followed was an enquiry by the FIA at Red Bull’s request about the fuel flow and the two parties reached a “private settlement” after which Ferrari’s performances dipped significantly. Speaking about the controversy, Binotto said “That's in the past; I prefer not to talk about it any more. However, what we were doing at the time was pushing the line of interpretations. As a matter of fact, it wasn't illegal, or we would have been disqualified." 

What followed was Ferrari’s worst season in 40 years and with the COVID-19 pandemic, the opportunity to develop the car further was virtually impossible. Such was the disappointment at Ferrari that it led to a huge cultural change. Binotto said “At the time our CEO was Louis Camilleri and he had the vision to understand that what was most important was to give stability to the team. He understood that we had already started a process of building. We worked a lot on that (the culture . It is taking the error more as an opportunity to learn a lesson, rather than blaming and pointing fingers. It is all about being brave enough to hear, to listen and to do something which is really open-minded. It is about working as a team, a single individual understanding the common responsibility."

One of the biggest reasons for Ferrari’s success in the 2022 season has been the delay in the implementation of the new aerodynamic rules, which was originally supposed to be for the 2021 season. Binotto said that the delay “gave us more time to prepare ourselves, less distraction from the priority". One of their strongest features in the F1-75 has been the power unit and Binotto gave credit to the team for its development. Moreover, Leclerc has finally reached a stage of maturity where he can truly capitalise on the car’s power and take the fight to Red Bull this time around.

"We knew Charles had very high potential," Binotto says. "When we put him in our car in 2019, he proved in the first season to be very strong and talented. The way he was attacking, defending and driving proved what he could do. We knew he had to improve in terms of maturity, leadership and tyre management, and I think, as the seasons passed, it gave us the confidence he could do that and would become a fantastic driver. We had the confidence he could be a driver who can win world championships and become a very strong leader for the team."

The biggest challenge for Ferrari now would be maintaining their title charge. With the Azerbaijan Grand Prix on the horizon, it’s imperative that Ferrari make up for the lost ground as Leclerc, who had a 46 point lead, is now 9 points behind Max Verstappen in the Drivers Standings. Speaking about the objectives of the 2022 season, Binotto said “We set our objectives to be back competitive in 2022. So our objective is to be competitive, not to win the championship, and it would be completely wrong to turn that into: 'Let's try to win the championship because we are so competitive.' 

"Being competitive is one fact; becoming world champion is another level of task. [Saying] that is maybe to take off some pressure from the team, but also I think it would be wrong as management to change objectives from the ones we gave them. No doubt what we intend to do is to try to open a cycle – become world champion, and not only once; try to stay there. But I think it will take time. Our internal mindset is still that we need to improve as a team to be capable of winning a championship. It doesn't mean we will not do it. 

“Maybe we will do it as soon as possible, but we are conscious of the fact that it is more than only being competitive. The ambition is there. Each single person working for Ferrari has the ambition. I don't think I need to remind them. More important is to let them focus on our process of continuous improvement, so each race is an opportunity for lesson-learned review and to build to do something better. And it is important to stay focused on each single race. We are not looking at the classifications."

Also read: Red Bull, Mercedes and Ferrari fear penalties after exceeding budget cap


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