After losing out on the world drivers’ and constructors championships to Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing in 2012, Fernando Alonso and Ferrari made a strong start to 2013, winning two of the opening five rounds of the season. However, more recently things have been going less well for the Scuderia. The first race after the summer break – at Spa at the end of this month – may well determine how quickly Ferrari shift their resources to their 2014 car.
So, what has gone wrong at Ferrari? I think that there are a number of issues, the biggest of which is that the team seem unable to develop the F138 to keep pace with their rivals. This is not a new problem for Ferrari – we saw the same problems with the development of last year’s car – but it is one that they seem no closer to solving.
As teams, drivers, media and fans know, development is vital in F1. Starting the season with an uncompetitive car isn’t the end of the world if you can improve it more rapidly than your competitors. An excellent example of that is McLaren’s 2009 season, during which Lewis Hamilton won two races, despite neither car finishing higher than fourth in the first nine races of the 17 race season. Knowing the importance of development is not the same as being able to develop the car, however.
Alonso revealed at the last race in Hungary that the F138 is currently in the same specification that Alonso drove to victory in Spain, some five races earlier. This isn’t because Ferrari, have been lazy, of course. The team has been bringing new parts to races – like the new diffuser that they brought to the Hungaroring – fitting them to the car, only to find that they fail to bring the expected improvements to performance. Wind tunnel and simulation data are failing to accurately predict real world performance – a massive issue.
If their development problems weren’t bad enough, Ferrari seemed to have been affected badly by the change in Pirelli’s tyre construction. Following a number of unsightly and dangerous tyre delaminations earlier in the season, the Italian tyre manufacturer was criticised by a number of teams, but Ferrari were not among them. Despite calls to change the tyre construction, the teams couldn’t agree to the switch. This all changed after the British grand prix, though. The multiple tyre failures that we saw in that race forced an immediate reaction and just a couple of rounds later – at the last race in Budapest – we saw the 2013 tyre compounds paired with the 2012 tyre construction to address the problems. Essentially, this meant a switch from steel belted tyres to tyres with Kevlar belts.
The change in tyre construction means that heat is better dissipated by the tyre, rather than retained in the steel belt. This, of course, will benefit teams that suffer from high thermal degradation of their tyres, most notably Mercedes who won the race through Lewis Hamilton in Hungary. Teams that haven’t struggled to the same extent with tyre degradation issues are likely to be disadvantaged, though. We saw Force India struggle at the Hungaroring, with Ferrari also suffering.
Ferrari have had issues in qualifying this season and have only had a single front row start in 2013; for Felipe Massa in round two in Malaysia. Conversely, though, their race pace has been extremely strong, with Alonso, in particular, able to move forward rapidly on Sundays. This is likely down to car characteristics, with the F138 struggling to heat its tyres and bring them into ‘the window’ of operating efficiency for a single qualifying lap, but looking after the same tyres well on race day. The change in the construction of the tyres means, though, that the help in heating the rubber that Ferrari would have received from the steel banded tyres has disappeared. As we saw at the Hungaroring, Ferrari’s race pace was disappointing, with Alonso finishing where he started in fifth place – aided by the difficulties suffered by Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean – while Massa dropped one place from his starting position to finish eighth in the race.
As we saw from Lotus’s performance in Hungary, though, it is certainly possible for a team that enjoyed the steel belted tyres to perform equally strongly with the Kevlar belted construction. Lotus is a team that have been extremely good on tyre wear, and might have expected to struggle with a tyre that dissipates heat more rapidly. This wasn’t the case in Hungary, though, with Raikkonen benefitting from a two stop strategy to finish second, while Grosjean can count himself unlucky to have finished sixth, after receiving two penalties from the stewards. Some of Lotus’s strong performance on the Kevlar tyres might be attributable to the high heat at the Hungaroring, but Force India and Ferrari suffered in the same conditions, so there’s almost certainly something that these two teams can learn from Lotus.
The final issue for Ferrari is their drivers. After a strong start to the season Massa is now starting to struggle quite badly. A poor start to 2012 saw heavy speculation that the Brazilian would be replaced at Ferrari for 2013, but a strong end to the season saw him retain his seat and an even stronger start to 2013 seemed to have dispelled any doubts about Massa at Ferrari. A run of five crashes over the course of four grands prix weekends – Monaco (twice), Canada, Britain and Germany, where he spun out on lap four – has reignited the speculation over the 32 year old’s future at Ferrari, though.
Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo has gone from being supportive of Massa, saying last month that “Felipe is fully aware he can count on our total confidence in him” to saying more recently “in the past days, we were very clear with him: both he and us need results and points. Then, at some point, we will look one another in the eye and decide what to do”. Fernando Alonso has not been immune from criticism, either. Recent speculation has linked the Spaniard to Mark Webber’s seat at Red Bull Racing, with the reaction from Ferrari being whispers about Alonso failing to get the best out of the car in qualifying and Di Montezemolo publicly rebuking the double world driver’s champion.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, Ferrari’s form at the Belgian grand prix at the iconic Spa-Francorchamps may well prove crucial to determining where the team focuses its resources; the F138 or the 2014 challenger. I expect that a lack of improvements will see 2013 being sacrificed in favour of next year’s car. With James Allison joining Ferrari as technical director next month, this may well be the plan at Maranello in any case.
It is crucial that, whatever they decide to do, the team pulls together and avoids a sustained period of destructive speculation surrounding their drivers. With silly season just getting started that might be easier said than done, however. It looks like it could be a challenging second half of the season for Ferrari.