Dangerous Ferrari are the ones to watch in F1’s new era

Oliver Harden
Carlos Sainz overtakes Valtteri Bottas during the Russian GP. Sochi September 2021.

Oh, how they laughed in the months after Carlos Sainz’s move from McLaren to Ferrari was confirmed in the spring of 2020.

Since arriving from Renault at the end of 2018, Sainz had restored his reputation and become a valuable asset to an upwardly mobile McLaren team, where he had formed a productive partnership with team-mate Lando Norris – but now he was about to throw it all away.

For what?

For a Ferrari team enduring their worst season in four decades and a car that – in the hands of Sebastian Vettel, the driver he would replace – was eliminated in Q1 at Monza on a weekend when Sainz’s McLaren qualified third on merit before pushing Pierre Gasly all the way for the win in the Italian Grand Prix.

His move was framed as a form of career suicide and surely, he was persistently asked in press conferences and television pens to the point of irritation, there must at least be a small part of him regretting the decision?

Sainz’s routinely recycled response was robust and seemed to ignore the evidence of his own eyes.

Not at all, he argued. Why would he? McLaren are McLaren, yes, but Ferrari are Ferrari. Who in their right mind would turn down the chance to be a part of that?

The first rule of Formula 1, after all, is the Prancing Horse never stays down for very long.

His commitment to taking the plunge was fully vindicated across a 2021 season in which Ferrari reduced the significance of 2020 to one of the more severe of their occasional blips, comfortably beating McLaren to third place in the Constructors’ Championship.

There was something almost stately about the relationship Sainz established with Charles Leclerc – two talented, smart and sophisticated representatives of the sport’s most historic team – which quickly became F1’s most well-balanced, exciting and compatible driver line-up.

If it was left to Leclerc to bring the magic, qualifying on pole position in Monaco and Baku and leading much of the British Grand Prix, Sainz was stunningly opportunistic in adding four podium finishes to his collection and outscoring the driver many believe to be a match for Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton.

From supposedly staring into the abyss, there is undeniably an optimism and momentum swirling around Maranello once more.

And with Mercedes and Red Bull racing in another stratosphere in 2021 – Ferrari ultimately finished 290 points adrift of the former’s title-winning tally – the new regulations for 2022 have come at an ideal time and offer a potential short cut back to the very front.

Ferrari, in truth, have a poor record when it comes to rule changes in the modern era and were famously wrongfooted by the 2009 regulations when, after fighting for the Drivers’ title until the final round of 2008, the reigning Constructors’ champions were restricted to a single victory the following season.

They were slow to recognise the transformational effect of the V6 hybrid engines in 2014 and they effectively took themselves out of World Championship contention in 2019 when the front wing tweaks created a fork in the road.

For all the times Ferrari failed to capitalise on new regulations, however, they got it absolutely right in 2017 with what remains one of the most innovative and influential designs of the last decade – and it is perhaps here where the team can find inspiration for 2022.

With its high and narrow sidepod inlets, which would be copied by every other team over the next few seasons, the SF70H was the function of a fresh outlook imposed by Sergio Marchionne, the late Ferrari chairman, during the team’s second winless season in three years in 2016.

Before his death in July 2018, Marchionne was perceived by some as Darth Vader in a black pullover, an overlord figure whose stifling presence whenever he visited the paddock – where he would speak frankly about Ferrari’s performance, or lack of – was counter-productive.

In other words, his public utterances only piled pressure on a team who, with the Prancing Horse on their chests against the backdrop of years of under-achievement and under the microscope of the unforgiving Italian media, were operating under enough scrutiny already.

Yet, paradoxically, it was he who set the tone for the freedom – the creative and adventurous thinking – that resulted in the 2017 car, Ferrari’s ticket back to title contention, in a message to his team relayed by esteemed Italian reporter Pino Allievi in F1 Racing magazine.

“I don’t want you to take the past as a reference in any way,” Marchionne had said. “I demand you make me a winning Ferrari that takes every concept to extremes. It should stay within the FIA’s rules but know how to exploit them to the tiniest detail.”

The mighty influence of Marchionne was confirmed by team principal Mattia Binotto in an interview for F1’s Beyond The Grid podcast in December 2020, in which he admitted his former boss had pushed Ferrari “a lot to develop the grey areas as much as we could”.

Mattia Binotto walking with Charles Leclerc. Barcelona May 2021.

Ferrari ultimately lived and died by the sword, for while their inventiveness brought 14 grand prix victories shared between Vettel, Leclerc and Kimi Raikkonen between 2017 and 2019 it also eventually brought them down, their power unit the subject of a mysterious settlement with the FIA in early 2020.

Suddenly without the power around which their entire 2020 car was conceived, the seed for their worst season since 1980 was planted and the need to adjust to their new normal, while clawing back some of what they had lost, was central to their quick improvement in 2021.

Perhaps the biggest question as launch season begins is whether Ferrari, hopeful of taking the next step, still feel the sting of two years ago.

Has the punishing experience of 2020 encouraged them to play it safe with the 2022 design? Or does Marchionne’s philosophy still reverberate within the walls of Maranello, that preparedness to push boundaries a central theme of Binotto’s work?

Throughout the development stage there has been much talk that the 2022 rules – the most thoroughly researched in F1 history – are heavily restrictive, leaving little room for interpretation and, in theory, ensuring there are few discernible differences between a Mercedes and a Ferrari, an Alpine and a Williams.

Yet a loophole – or loopholes – of some description must surely exist, for as foolproof as engineers as respected as Ross Brawn, Pat Symonds and Nikolas Tombazis have attempted to make the rules, F1 and the FIA will always lack the wherewithal, resources and relentlessly critical eyes of the teams.

 

As Ferrari edged away from McLaren to secure P3 in 2021 – a battle the team, as their racing director Laurent Mekies revealed, treated with the ferocity of a title fight in preparation for greater tests to come – Binotto, still an engineer at heart, began to skip races in favour of working on the 2022 car at Maranello.

What exactly he was plotting will only begin to become clear when the new F1-75, named to mark the anniversary of Ferrari’s first production car, is launched on February 17.

But after a year of steadily regaining their strength, Ferrari feel dangerous – the ones to watch – as F1’s new era begins.

If there is a hidden gem lurking somewhere within the 2022 rulebook, Binotto and his team may be best placed to find it.

 

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