Ferrari are throwing away something Red Bull and Mercedes wouldn’t

Thomas Maher
Ferrari's Charles Leclerc on track at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2022.

Ferrari's Charles Leclerc on track at the Hungarian Grand Prix. Budapest, July 2022.

Ferrari’s 2022 will be a year many will reckon was a missed opportunity, but Mattia Binotto seems to disagree…

If one went back to the scene of Charles Leclerc’s dominant victory in Australia, in which the Monegasque comfortably saw off the challenge of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, and told the world that Leclerc would only finish on the podium twice in the next 10 races – that’s a prediction absolutely nobody would have believed.

But that has been the case in 2022 where, despite having the (apparently) quickest car on the grid, Ferrari have managed to fluff their way to a position where they are now looking over their shoulders at the rapidly improving Mercedes, rather than focusing on catching Red Bull.

Not since 2005 has the apparently quickest car/driver package lost out to a rival so comprehensively, but at least on that occasion, McLaren’s failure to secure victory with Kimi Raikkonen was down to Mercedes unreliability and little else. When the car held together, Raikkonen was generally able to be there or thereabouts for the victory – something Ferrari can’t claim this season.

After a few seasons of being away from the very front of Formula 1, in the wake of the infamous FIA deal that saw a “settlement” between the governing body and the Scuderia, Ferrari have been slowly but surely rebuilding the pillars upon which they hope to achieve title success once again.

In that regard, team boss Mattia Binotto has brought about significant change. With his technical mind, Binotto appears to have brought forward the might of Maranello’s ingenuity and engineering prowess. For the start of this new and incredibly complex regulation set, Ferrari really have put together a formidable machine that, over a single lap, seems to have no match.

If a list was being put together of the positives and negatives for their season, the car itself would be in the ‘positives’ list. Before moving on to the negatives, the power unit itself can only be positioned as a ‘neutral’ for now.

After all, while the Ferrari power unit has taken a huge step forward for 2022, with the Scuderia and their customers all rising, reliability issues have crept in as the wear on the components increases – particularly on the ERS side.

Leclerc himself has had the two most high-profile failures of the season, but every Ferrari-powered car has encountered race-ending problems – to a far greater extent than the Mercedes or Honda-powered machines.

It stands to reason that, given the introduction of the engine freeze immediately prior to the 2022 season, Ferrari appear to have opted for all-out performance.

It’s a perfectly understandable decision, given that engine development from now on is restricted to reliability fixes, with no performance-related development permitted. Having made a huge leap on the power front, the reliability chickens are now coming home to roost – but the regulations do allow for fixes to be implemented.

Carlos Sainz's Ferrari alongside George Russell's Mercedes. Hungaroring July 2022.
Carlos Sainz's Ferrari alongside George Russell's Mercedes during the Hungarian Grand Prix. Hungaroring July 2022.

On the driver front, Ferrari have an interesting combination that’s harmonious – for now. At the start of the season, Leclerc had the clear edge on Carlos Sainz and, given the fact Sainz could get nowhere near Leclerc on track, there was no real issue.

However, as the season has ground on, Sainz has raised his game considerably. While Leclerc continues to have an edge in terms of outright speed, Sainz has been there or thereabouts in recent races.

Added to that, his willingness to question the decisions being made by Ferrari has resulted in him finishing in front of Leclerc more than once. Should this pattern continue into the second half of the year, it could lead to some interesting radio calls as Ferrari hum and haw their way through a supposed title fight.

Leclerc himself is raising his own question marks this year. The Monegasque is undoubtedly extremely fast – arguably even quicker over a single lap than anyone else.

But, as mentioned previously, Leclerc owing his position to Ferrari could be the reason why he’s unwilling to challenge the pit wall during a race, or speak harshly about the team after their latest error. It’s in stark contrast to Max Verstappen who, just two races after winning a title with Red Bull, was as direct about his team’s performance as he could.

Leclerc is also unproven at handling the pressures of a sustained title fight. Imola was an early indicator of this, in which he spun off at Variante Alta while chasing second place. Had luck not been on his side, the error could just as easily have ended with far more significant damage than he picked up.

Until France, that was Leclerc’s only significant misstep. But the error at Paul Ricard was the sort that can be career-defining, as it was for Sebastian Vettel at the 2018 German Grand Prix. Only time will tell whether Leclerc is able to put a mistake like that fully out of mind and have it not affect his driving the next time he finds himself in a similar situation.

For now, between Leclerc and Verstappen, only the Dutch driver has proven himself as an elite talent. Leclerc’s 2022, while excellent overall, still has some blemishes.

Leclerc also has to worry about the rise of Sainz. While the Spaniard was nowhere to start the year, his improved performances will start giving the Scuderia cause for consideration as time goes on. Leclerc’s position as the undisputed number one, as was the case early in the year, is not quite as clear-cut anymore.

Sainz also showed he’s willing to play the political game, such as when he echoed Binotto’s statements about performance, not strategy, being to blame in Hungary – Leclerc being the errant voice on that occasion.

Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz battle. Red Bull Ring July 2022.
Ferrari duo Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz do battle during the Austrian Grand Prix sprint. Red Bull Ring July 2022.

The statements that Binotto made earlier this summer, in which he said the goal of 2022 was not to win the titles, certainly caused consternation at the time.

“We set our objectives to be back competitive in 2022,” Binotto told the BBC.

“So our objective is to be competitive, not to win the championship, and it would be completely wrong to turn that into ‘let’s try to win the championship because we are so competitive’.

“Being competitive is one fact. Becoming World Champion is another level of task. [Saying] that is maybe to take off some pressure from the team, but also I think it would be wrong as management to change objectives from the ones we gave them.”

There is a logic to that, even if it’s difficult to imagine Red Bull or Mercedes refusing to push for ultimate success in consideration of their competitive package.

Binotto, from his first day in charge, has pushed to change the culture of Ferrari in a bid to create more harmony and make personnel less afraid for their jobs if the wrong decisions are made. In some ways, that has been successful. However, the overarching lethargy that surrounds the team’s strategy department has not dissipated in any shape or form.

Strategy remains Ferrari’s greatest weakness, and Binotto’s reluctance to single out strategy director Inaki Rueda for making significant errors has been notable.

Binotto has attempted to instil a sense of calm, methodical, and analytical processes to Ferrari, to the extent where, even presented with the circumstances of having the fastest car in the first year of a regulation change, the team boss is refusing to let his team get too worked up by the notion of winning a title.

Thinking back to 2008, when BMW led the championships after the Canadian Grand Prix, the German company also refused to engage with the title battle in order to focus on 2009. That resulted in zero championships for the team.

There simply is no guarantee of the current performance status quo remaining the same and, as the regulations mature, it’s likely the task will only get more difficult, not easier.

Will Binotto’s approach pay off in 2023? 2024? At what point does he say “OK, this is the year we go for it,” and why isn’t it this year?