May 16, 2024
F1: What's gone wrong at Ferrari and can they bounce back in 2021?

F1: What’s gone wrong at Ferrari and can they bounce back in 2021?

“All the same, we have made some progress over the past few races, and hopefully we can continue doing so over the winter to come back stronger next year.”

Having finished second in the Formula One constructors’ championship three years running — from 2017 to 2019 — Ferrari dropped to sixth this year.

In 2019, the team notched 19 podiums finishes, including three wins, between its two drivers. This year, the team has achieved three podiums total.

In a sport where, year on year, progress is expected, Ferrari’s drop in performance has been staggering — and this in a season the team celebrated its 1000th Grand Prix.

PA media’s F1 correspondent Phil Duncan said it had been a year to forget for the Italian marque.

“If they’re in a similar position next year as they have been this year, then that’s just not good enough,” Duncan told CNN. “For a team like Ferrari, who are the most successful team in the sport, and haven’t won a world championship since 2007. That’s just not good enough.”
So what has gone wrong for the team of Michael Schumacher, Niki Lauda and John Surtees? And can it bounce back in 2021?

The Vettel issue

With 16 constructors’ titles, no team in F1 history comes close to Ferrari’s success. Williams is second with nine.

The Italian team started the new millennium well. Five constructors’ titles and drivers’ titles with Michael Schumacher between 2000-2004, before another duo of wins with Kimi Raikkonen in 2007. But then the winning stopped.

In 2015, four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel joined and many believed more titles would be added to the team’s roll of honors. The German finished second in the 2017 and 2018 drivers’ title fights, but that’s as good as it got and, over the last two years, 23-year-old Leclerc has outshone Vettel.

Sebastian Vettel earned three wins with Ferrari in 2015, his first season with the team.

Senior writer for Lawrence Barretto says Leclerc’s rise will have changed how Ferrari perceived its supposed number one driver, and how Vettel saw himself too.

“When Charles came in and got seven poles last year, won races, it became clear that Sebastian wasn’t as far ahead as I think Ferrari assumed he would be at the end of that year. And I think that put the pressure on him coming into this year,” he tells CNN.

Earlier this year it was announced Vettel would be replaced by Carlos Sainz at Ferrari, making it clear that rising star Leclerc was the team’s future.

But Duncan does not believe Vettel’s loss of confidence stems from Leclerc’s rise.

“He’s gone up against Lewis [Hamilton] and Lewis has basically just wiped the floor with him,” Duncan says. “And he’s been on a downward spiral now since about the middle of 2018 when he crashed out from leading the German Grand Prix.”

That race wasn’t the only incident which indicated Vettel was starting to crack under the pressure of being Ferrari’s number one driver.

Vettel came up short going head-to-head with Lewis Hamilton in 2017 and 2018.

In Azerbaijan in 2017, Vettel purposefully drove into the side of Hamilton’s car after believing the Briton had brake-tested him — purposefully jumping on the brakes in order to force the person behind to do the same or swerve out of the way to avoid a crash.

He could have taken the 2017 championship lead in Singapore but, starting from pole position, a collision with Raikkonen and Max Verstappen at turn one ended the race for all three. Hamilton won the race and took a lead in the standings he wouldn’t relinquish for the remainder of the season.

In 2018, things got worse. Numerous grid penalties and unnecessary collisions mounted to a huge number of lost points. The incident in Germany was the most scarring of the lot.

The effects of those errors were felt this year. The average starting positions on grid were 8.3 for Leclerc and 12.2 for Vettel, with average finishes — excluding retirements — of 5.4 and 9.2 respectively.

Only at the Turkish Grand Prix have we seen a glimpse of Vettel at his best again.

The 2020 Turkish Grand Prix brought Vettel his only podium of the year in difficult racing conditions.

Recent resurfacing of the track and wet weather meant drivers struggled to get the power down.

A freshly laid track is slippy without any rain, so the addition of poor weather in Turkey made matters even more difficult. Minutely too much throttle and you spin out. Too little and you’re nowhere.

The talent of Ferrari’s drivers shone through as, in these tricky conditions, Vettel finished third with Leclerc a place behind.

So, Ferrari’s slump isn’t just down to the drivers — to Vettel’s loss of confidence, or a sophomore slump for Leclerc. The car hasn’t been good enough when driving in ideal racing conditions.

Regulation nightmare

Towards the end of 2019, Ferrari had a run of six races where one of its cars started on pole position. That ended at the United States Grand Prix, when a rules clarification meant the engine had to be modified.

Regular FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) checks hadn’t found anything illegal, but the changes reduced the team’s ability to race at the same level through the remaining two races.

Ferrari maintains its innocence but, during the winter break that year, the team reached a private settlement with the FIA over its engine — the details of which have not being made public.

More engine rule changes prior to the beginning of the 2020 season also affected Ferrari more than any other engine supplier.

It was recorded at the 2020 Belgian Grand Prix in August that the cars were, on average, 10 km/h (6 mph) slower than in 2019.

Ferrari’s incredible qualifying pace in 2019 brought Vettel and Leclerc an average starting position of 4.3 and 4.4 respectively, with average race finishes, excluding retirements, of 4.6 and 3.8.

Ferrari were much faster in 2019, taking multiple victories including at Singapore where the team recorded a 1-2 finish -- the victory was the last of Vettel's at Ferrari, and is the team's most recent win in F1.

As mentioned, in 2020, their average starting positions and race finishes were far worse just one year later.

Yet Ferrari’s standards should be higher than that. Fortunately for the team, it has been able to invest in the 2021 car and engine before the new budget cap is introduced next year.

To create a more level playing-field, and to end the dominance of a single team — Mercedes — the cap begins at $145 million for 2021, $140 million for 2022 before staying at $135 million for 2023-25.

For Ferrari, a team that reportedly spends $400 million per year, it has been imperative it prepares for 2021 during the 2020 season.

“[Ferrari] can hopefully make as many gains as it can and use its maximum resources up until obviously the deadline at the end of this year,” says Barretto. “From a power unit perspective, that’s great.

“On the aerodynamics side, it’s going to be slightly more challenging for them to make big gains because of the relative stability and regulations from this year into next year.”

In statement sent to CNN, Ferrari said the team had a “difficult year.”

“However, in the second part of the season, even though our results did not entirely show this, we’ve started to introduce a few upgrades which improved the performance of our car and confirmed the development is going in the right direction. This is a positive signal, in view of next season.

“True that in 2021 the basics of the car will be freezed for development, but there is the possibility to improve it in certain areas using the so called tokens allowed by the regulations, which we spent in the rear area of the car. Then, we will have a completely new PU [power unit] — an area where development is free — which is currently running at the dyno — and feedback on performance is encouraging.”

Leadership and stability

In any other year, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto might have been fired for such a disastrous season.

But, so far, the 51-year-old has retained the confidence of a team that, since 2014, has had three team principals — a remarkable turnover for a team which, prior to 2014, had had only two team principals in 21 years.

Mattia Binotto has been team principal of Scuderia Ferrari since late 2018.

Former Ferrari chairman and chief executive Sergio Marchionne, who took over in 2014, applied constant pressure to his principals.

“The pressure was such that you had always your mobile [phone] next to you, day and night, because if he was sending you a WhatsApp, you had to reply within 30 seconds,” Binotto told F1’s Beyond the Grid podcast about life under Marchionne.

Louis Camilleri succeeded Marchionne after the latter’s untimely death in late 2018.

In the same podcast, Binotto says of Camilleri: “He understands the importance of stability, he understands the importance of investing.”

But the future is now uncertain after Camilleri resigned with immediate effect ahead of the final Grand Prix weekend of the season to be replaced by chairman John Elkann on an interim basis.
Louis Camilleri's (center) surprise resignation as CEO of Ferrari has cast doubt over Binotto's position as team principal.

Asked whether there would be a restructuring of management as a result of the performances during this season, Ferrari’s statement said that “during the course of the 2020 season, the Scuderia has gone through a reorganisation of its technical department to render it more effective and assure a better performance development.”

“The structure of Scuderia Ferrari is in continuous and ongoing evolution, also to face the introduction of new regulations in 2021.

“With regards to the Team Principal Mattia Binotto, he always had and still has the full support of the top management,” added the Ferrari statement.

A new start

In 2021, Ferrari will be hoping new driver Sainz will help the recovery.

Barretto says the team has a “leader” in Sainz, who replaces Vettel at Ferrari after two years with McLaren.

“He’s going to move to Italy and spend as much time as he can at the factory and he’s going to embed himself in there,” says Barretto. “I think when they see that hunger, they’re going to want to try and build on that.”

Carlos Sainz joins Ferrari from McLaren for the 2021 season and has said the team needs to take a "very big step" to get back to the front of the grid.
Earlier this year, Sainz said: “I’ll be the first one in the factory pushing to find more power and I’ll be pushing everyone as soon as I get there.

“It’s a long way — they need to do a very, very, very, very big step to get back to where we all are but if anyone can do it, it’s Ferrari.”

Ferrari is not a team accustomed to scrapping in the midfield of the grid, something which Duncan describes as “depressing to see.”

A team that should be focused on winning and competing at the front has been reduced to hopes for the future.

Barretto isn’t as confident that huge improvements will happen in 2021. Instead, the regulation overhaul in 2022 could be key to Ferrari’s return to the top.

“Because the [2021] regulations don’t give you a chance to go wild, it’s going to be difficult for Ferrari to make a jump back up to the front of the field. And I imagine that they are quite realistic about the fact that while they can make gains next year, the big gains will come in 2022.”