BusyFormula #038: Is the old Ferrari returning to lose the championship?

At the start of the 2017 season’s summer break, Lewis Hamilton trailed Sebastian Vettel by 14 points. Five races later, Hamilton was ahead by 59 points and went on to win the drivers’ championship. In 2018, Hamilton was ahead going into the summer break and massively stretched the lead with four wins in the next five races. There remains heated contention over what changed the fortunes of both drivers and their respective teams so drastically.

Some events are attributed to strong in-season development by Mercedes, while others say that the Ferrari pit wall messed up race strategy one too many times.

The tipping point and rebuilding

Ferrari replaced the team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, with Mattia Binotto in January 2019, and things didn’t improve. Instead, Leclerc and Vettel had a counterproductive battle, and the FIA caught the team circumventing a fuel flow regulation for extra straight-line speed.

However, Ferrari endured another year of agony during the 2020 season and crawled their way back up the pecking order to finish 3rd in 2021. At this point, many believed that they’d be one of the major contenders for the 2022 trophy, and they weren’t wrong.

Ferrari got off to a strong start with pole position, the fastest lap and a 1-2 finish in Bahrain. On the other hand, Red Bull, their closest competitor, had a mysterious double DNF. They went on to have another DNF with Verstappen’s car in Melbourne. We are now five races in, and Red Bull has three race wins, standing six points away from the leader, Ferrari.

Of course, it’s still too early to say Ferrari has lost it (or rather unjust), but it’s worth paying attention to the context in which Red Bull has previously been closing the gap.

Driver errors

At Albert Park, Sainz Jr. spun off the track and beached his car in the gravel trap. In Imola, Leclerc spun while aggressively chasing down Perez for a P2 finish when he could have settled for 3rd, ending up 6th. Sainz retired once again due to a collision caused by Ricciardo.

In all fairness, every driver makes a mistake or two as a season progresses. Some are small, while others are quite costly. However, in Ferrari’s case, these have happened quite early in the season, before the pressure peaks. They have also cost the team plenty of points.

Additionally, there have been a few issues in the team’s build-up to Sunday races, such as the car-start issues during qualifying in Australia. And while Ferrari has one of the top two cars this season, that in the past has proved never enough to win championships. Every aspect of the team has to be in harmony, which isn’t yet the case for Ferrari.

A possible Mercedes plot twist

While many seem to have written off Mercedes this season, there’s no other team on the grid we know to be as effective at orchestrating comebacks. During the Miami GP, Mercedes brought a host of upgrades that seemed to improve performance slightly. A Mercedes resurgence would be a tremendous game-changer for two main reasons. Firstly, they are still the team with the best reliability record compared to Red Bull and Ferrari in recent times.

Secondly, they still have vivid memories of the operational lapses that put them in a tough spot at the end of 2021.From the 2-stop debate at Paul Ricard to Hamilton’s brake magic switch fiasco in Baku, Mercedes has many incidents they wouldn’t like to repeat.

However, a team like Ferrari, which hasn’t been in championship contention for the last two years, might need a refresher course in working under pressure.

Why being hunted is tougher than hunting

Strategy is one of those areas where a midfield team’s mentality can be quite different from that of a leading team. Remember the Hungary 2021 episode where Mercedes couldn’t risk relinquishing the lead to bring Hamilton in for dry tires? Or the season closer in Abu Dhabi, where some argue that Hamilton could have pitted and maintained a fighting chance? This is all easier to say in hindsight, but such decisions are more challenging in that moment.

There’s also the debate about when to change parts and incur grid penalties once you exhaust the maximum. Red Bull was quite tactical with this one, aligning their parts-change with Verstappen’s grid penalty for causing the Monza collision with Hamilton last year.

But Mercedes was more strategic with their ICE changes. After their Sao Paulo performance, some even suggested they should run fresh ICEs for the remaining races because the pace advantage could catapult them back into P1 regardless of the grid penalties incurred.

Ferrari hasn’t been in such situations for a while, and if they keep going like this, they might choke when the heat is turned up. But surely, a three-way fight will be strange territory for all three contenders since the last semblance of one was in early 2018.

Aijuka Duncan Ngabirano is a motorsport junkie with a passion for storytelling through various media, and hodling crypto.

Duncan Ngabirano Aijuka