|(C) 2014 Ferrari/Ercolo Colombo|
For all of Ferrari's F1 history (they are the only team left from the first season of the world championship in 1950), and the patriotic pride they inspire in Italy, part of Ferrari's continued relevance in the sport stems, in my view (expressed here back in 2009 during that political period), from their resurgence at the turn of the Millennium. Michael Schumacher's five successive drivers' titles and Ferrari's six consecutive constructors' titles captured the imagination of a new fanbase, and helped ensure that the team did not fold or lose relevance in the way the likes of Lotus, Brabham and Tyrrell arguably did so despite their best efforts. However, fast forward five years and the team have yet to add another world title (drivers' or constructors') to their trophy cabinet. Moreover, 2014 has been their worst season for some time (2009 at least but probably longer), resulting in only two podiums so far this season, and a likely best finish of 4th in both championships. It has led to dramatic upheaval; team principal Stefano Domenicali resigned after Ferrari could only finish 9th and 10th in Round 3 - the Bahrain Grand Prix - while Ferrari chairman Luca Montezemolo was removed from his position shortly after the team only picked up one 9th place in last month's Italian Grand Prix. Now, at this weekend's Japanese Grand Prix (October 3rd-5th), it looks as though their star driver of the past five seasons, Fernando Alonso, will leave the team at the end of the season after failing to win his much-coveted third world championship. It looks ominously as though the Scuderia are starting the third long drought of their history (1964-75 being the first one; 1983-99 being the second one). So why did it happen, what about the protagonists, and what happens next?
STRATEGIC ERRORSClearly, Ferrari - like every other team and individual in the sport bar Adrian Newey - were slow to see the full potential of the blown diffuser (whose nuanced driving demands Sebastian Vettel then maximised) and its impact on performance in the new generation of cars that came in at the start of 2009 (and were refined and developed, after the odd rules change, thereafter). They have fought for the title since then - missing out by the narrowest of margins in 2010 and 2012 - but never quite managed a title win, and rarely if ever produced a car that was genuinely the fastest. Pinpointing this problem as being related to the engineers being too innately conservative in their designing of the cars, Ferrari have responded by periodically reshuffling their technical team during this period. Aldo Costa, who had firstly replaced Rory Byrne as Head of Design & Development when Byrne retired in 2006, and was then promoted to Ross Brawn's old position of technical director, was fired in 2011 after their underwhelming start to that season. Pat Fry was signed that season, then promoted (after Costa's sacking), then reshuffled - following the appointment of Renault/Lotus technical chief James Allison in 2013. After some initial teething problems, Allison was another who mastered the blown diffuser era at Lotus and his engineering ability will be key for the team going forward (he had little input on the 2014 car).
Although there is a reasonable argument that the team waited too long to hire Allison, I do feel that there has perhaps been too much focus on personnel (from the team as well as the media) in this debate. After the 'dream team' of Jean Todt (team principal), Schumacher, Brawn, Byrne and Paolo Martinelli (head of the engine department) was broken up from 2006, the team remained competitive under the 'new guard' (e.g. Domenicali and Costa) who had been promoted. They retained the winning culture of the team and, with the regulations being quite stable, managed to win one drivers' title (Kimi Raikkonen, 2007) and two constructors' titles (2007 and 2008). However, the 2009-13 era proved to be completely different to what had gone immediately before. In addition to the new cars, there were now fewer opportunities for using testing to assess the viability of new parts. This was a key loss for Ferrari, who held a significant comparative advantage in this area because of their own test facility at Fiorano. It placed more of a premium, too, on the team's simulator and wind tunnel facilities. The team had issues in both these areas. When hugely experienced racer and tester Pedro de la Rosa joined the Scuderia from McLaren in early 2013 he spoke of the team's simulator as needing "a lot of work" and that McLaren - one of the pioneers of development in this area - had a simulator "a few years ahead" of other teams. Meanwhile, as 2012 had progressed, the team had admitted that the correlation problems between wind tunnel and track were systematic and they were forced to close their wind tunnel (using in the meantime the old Toyota F1 wind tunnel in Cologne, Germany) for upgrades and repair work. This work was only completed late last winter and thus will only impact the 2015 car and onwards. In an interview this summer Aldo Costa (now an engineer with Mercedes) claimed he had raised the issues with the wind tunnel back in 2008, but had been ignored over the issue. Costa was often criticised at Ferrari for, in short, not being Ross Brawn. However, maybe the team were slow to see that the problem with their cars being too conservative was more to do with just the team personnel, and that efforts with the wind tunnel and simulator should have been acted upon earlier. The Mercedes team's success in 2014 has seen Costa rebuild his reputation somewhat, as he was part of an engineering team that came up with the novel "split turbine" solution to the engine/power unit packaging challenge all teams faced.
Ferrari's second strategic error, this one regarding the next new era of cars we've seen in 2014, came by not seeing where the big gains would come from. Having spent years agonisingly trying to build a car that could beat the aerodynamically supreme Red Bulls, they thought that 2014 would once again be fought primarily on aerodynamics, and seemingly poured a lot of energy and resource into this area. However, with the huge change in engine power units coming in for 2014, and with Ferrari making their own engines (as they always have done), engines was in fact the area where the greatest gains would be made, even though aero remained important. Back in 2012, as work on this new generation of cars started, one man saw this better than anyone else. His name? Ross Brawn, by this point at Mercedes after a break from the sport in 2007. Although the new management setup of Paddy Lowe, Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda deserve credit for the way they have kept the momentum up, and managed a difficult intra-team rivalry, the advantage of the Mercedes engine has its roots in Brawn's vision. His patience and medium-term planning (at the expense of minute short-term gains) ultimately cost him his job (it led to the management reshuffle at the end of a mostly dismal 2012 season, and Brawn left at the end of 2013 because he didn't fit within this new structure). But his legacy lives on in the team's success this year. Ferrari, on the other hand, despite a commendable enough aero package, had an engine that, though reliable, was too heavy and down on power and torque compared to its rival. The result has been a team struggling to make the Top 5 in races as the Mercedes-engined cars, along with the ever-present Red Bull, got on top.
Whilst it is also true that Ferrari have made operational errors over the past few years, in my view these have not been any higher in number than that of their immediate rivals. Indeed, ever since they overcame the teething problems they had with their lights only pit system, they have had one of the most consistently efficient pitcrews over the past few seasons. Additionally, whilst the team has made the odd tactical error in races, this is to be expected from any team operating in a high-pressure environment like F1 where the variables sometimes change from lap to lap. True, the team's decision to pit Alonso early at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and release him into traffic that he spent the rest of the race trying to overtake, led to a race outcome that was to prove very costly and - as I have argued before - one which had repercussions beyond the outcome of that year's world title (which Alonso subsequently lost). However, I have also argued that it was a decision that was rational at the time, even though it ultimately proved to be very wrong. If the tyres had not come back to Vettel and the McLarens that day, the recent history of F1 would probably look quite different today.
DOMENICALI & MONTEZEMOLODuring the middle of the 2012 season, where no team was dominant and Fernando Alonso's consistent brilliance had put him in a strong position of the title battle, I remember thinking that, were Alonso would win, it would be a fitting reward for his team principal, Stefano Domenicali. The Ferrari lifer had sought to give the team a human face, after the ruthlessness of the Todt era had left some F1 watchers cold, and yet not lost the team's will to win and competitive drive. Although they would consistently fall short - sometimes by the narrowest of margins - I admired this approach, and also the way he would never fail to front up to the media; think of the amount of times he was told "it's not good enough, is it Stefano?" by BBC pundit Eddie Jordan, and the amount of times he would say something like "no, of course not! But what can you do? We have to do better, we have to keep working hard to fix the problems of the car!" And I always remember that, whilst the 2012 car was never perfect (from mid-season onwards it was a handy race car, but one that continued to struggle in qualifying and was never the outright fastest), he still put all his energy into throwing the collective weight of the team behind Alonso to try and push him over the line to that third title in the wake of Red Bull's late competitiveness (think of the team throwing upgrades on the car every race; the team breaking Felipe Massa's gearbox seal in Texas to ensure that Fernando started on the clean side of the track; and Felipe's immaculate team job in Korea and Brazil too). He wasn't afraid of taking tough decisions (the team orders decision in Hockenheim 2010; the firing of Costa, and Chris Dyer's demotion after the Abu Dhabi debacle), but - if anything - this may have been his biggest weakness. It was interesting to hear him admit, at a recent event in Italy, that he regretted not doing more to protect the team's inner sanctum. This conforms with the hypothesis that the sackings/demotions, along with other things, which took place may have precipitated a wider blame culture that has been identified at Maranello these days (on which see more below).
Luca Montezemolo will always be a key part of Ferrari's proud history. It was Luca who, as manager of the team, helped mastermind them back to the top in mid-1970s, forming a formidable partnership with methodical lead driver Niki Lauda while engineer extraordinaire Mauro Forghieri worked his magic on both chassis and engine. After a stint spent organising the Italia 90 World Cup tournament in football, Luca then returned and, recognising Jean Todt's skills, cut him the slack and the independence he needed to take the Scuderia back to the top after their second drought. Yet the feeling as Montezemolo exited stage right in the days after Monza, was that his tendency back towards micro-management, as well as the breakdown in his relationship with Alonso (though personally I don't blame him for the specific message of team unity that he made at Hungary last year), may have helped contribute towards the team's third drought (as it now appears to be). His public pronouncements - which once could be dismissed almost fondly as "Luca being Luca" - started to get quite tiresome, his attack on the "new-for-2014" regulations were at times aggressive, ill-informed and somewhat hypocritical (he had initially backed the rule changes). Thus, while he will always have a proud place in F1's - and Ferrari's, possibly even Italian Business's - history, perhaps the right time had come for a farewell.
IT'S THE DAWNING...OF A NEW ERA
|Sebastian Vettel pictured in an old Ferrari of Gerhard Berger|
at this year's Austrian GP as part of an exhibition run.
Despite that, for a long time this year it has seemed that Alonso's best bit was to grimace and sit tight with Ferrari for 2015 while seeing how quick the car is and, correspondingly, whether there are better vacancies elsewhere. Ferrari, too, would ostensibly benefit from keeping - even for an extra year - a man most F1 watchers would say is the best on the current grid, even if some journalists probably overplay this slightly, and even if relations between Alonso and the team are not as strong as they once were. So why has it become clear over the past week that team and driver are due for a split at the end of 2014?
The answer appears to be that each side wanted certain guarantees from the other. Domenicali's replacement, Marco Mattiacci, has come in from Ferrari's North America road car division. Despite his lack of motorsport experience, he has approached the task of leading Gestione Sportiva (Ferrari's motorsport division) in a lucid, businesslike manner which has been commendable. One of the main conclusions he has drawn is to address Ferrari's conservatism in car design, even after the structural upgrades (e.g. to wind tunnel); on top of the firings/demotions outlined earlier, he said in an interview with Autosport that he felt a wider blame culture has inhibited risk taking at the team. Mattiacci is said to have faith in new technical director James Allison, but - it would seem - feels that turning the team around and back to world championship success could still be three or four years away; a medium-term rebuilding project. Alonso, who turned 33 at the end of July, no longer has time on his side to commit to this sort of project; he has become increasingly fed up at Ferrari, and is desperate to finally that third world title as soon as possible.
Thus it would appear that Ferrari have concluded that their best option, rather than having a year of "will he, won't he" with Alonso, and the potential pursuit of short-term gains at the expense of medium-term that this might foster, is to start afresh. And their preferred candidate is four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who announced today that he would part company with Red Bull after six seasons with their senior F1 team, not to mention many more as part of their Young Driver Programme. At first glance, it seems a bit strange again; Vettel has spent most of the year grappling to adapt his driving style to these new regulations and has been consequently outpaced by team-mate Daniel Ricciardo (who Ferrari also approached according to some reports). However, on the other hand, Vettel is young enough (27) and has already been successful enough to commit to the 3/4-year project that Ferrari seem to be demanding in order to get them back to the top. Such a project will also be a fresh challenge for a driver who has almost become part of the furniture at Red Bull. And maybe Vettel will bring the team-building skills to the team that Michael Schumacher mastered, but which were arguably the one chink in Alonso's armour (scroll down to Comment 6 for a discussion on this). Raikkonen is set to remain with the team in 2015, at which point it may be time for Ferrari to promote one of their Young Drivers; either Jules Bianchi (currently with Marussia in F1) or Raffaele Marciello (reigning European F3 champion currently racing in GP2), perhaps. Alonso's exact destination is unknown, though he being courted by McLaren and Honda, and they appear to be the only obvious option for 2015, despite the chequered past of the Alonso-McLaren partnership from '07.
It appears to be in this context that Ferrari have embarked upon their expedition back to the summit of Grand Prix racing. Both Alonso and Ferrari, one suspects, will feel regret and sadness that they were unable to win a championship together when the combination of the two seemed so promising at the outset of the relationship. In the words of football commentator Martin Tyler (speaking of another fallen red giant - Manchester United), it may get worse before it gets better at Maranello on this journey. But either way, it is time for the team to enter this new chapter in their long and illustrious history. The gelling of new team members with old; the twists and turns across different racing weekends - it will all be fascinating to observe. Ferrari's displays of high-handedness - when they occur - are grating to many F1 fans, myself included. Yet, ultimately, I would like to see them winning again one day fairly soon. And thus, in this endeavour, in this new chapter that they are embarking on with Vettel (seemingly), I say to them "Il bocca al lupo!"