What on earth is going wrong at Ferrari and how can they fix it?

Michelle Foster
A Ferrari flag in the crowd. Mexico, November 2021.

A Ferrari flag flown in the crowd at the Mexican Grand Prix.

From unprecedented in terms of speed to where the hell is the podium: Ferrari’s 2023 season has taken a dramatic turn and it’s not for the better.

After last year’s shambles, and the less said about that the better, Ferrari billed themselves as championship contenders for the 2023 season, the main challengers for Max Verstappen’s crown.

After all they’d fixed their engine reliability problems, the SF-23 was the fastest single-seater ever designed, they had a new man in charge and better yet he was a no-nonsense Frenchman, and they had two drivers chomping at the bit.

Alas three races into the season, there are no new flags fluttering outside the Maranello headquarters, flower pots have probably been placed on the empty mantel, and Il Canto degli Italiani has yet to ring out on a Sunday afternoon.

Instead we, and Ferrari, are left asking where did it all go wrong, because, let’s not beat around the bush, this year’s title quest is already over for Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.

Big changes to Ferrari structure

Such was the disappointment over 2022’s runner-up result in both championships that Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto handed in his resignation days after the season had concluded. It was said to be a case of the Italian jumping before he was pushed.

The Scuderia brought in Fred Vasseur as Binotto’s replacement, reigniting dreams of the last time a Frenchman led Ferrari – Jean Todt. Part of the dream team that won five championship doubles from 2000 to 2004, he was still in charge for the team’s final Drivers’ title in 2007.

But sitting down on the hot seat on January 9th, Vasseur was at the helm of all of 47 days before pre-season testing began in Bahrain. And just 53 days before the car took to that same circuit for the opening FP1 session of the season.

That meant he had absolutely no input on the 2023 car, and not much more on the team’s personnel. In fact declaring he wouldn’t make any drastic changes – “arrogant from my side to take action on the technical organisation” – it came as a surprise when Inaki Rueda was relegated to the factory with Ravin Jain promoted to trackside strategy chief.

But changes in personnel weren’t a shock for everyone, at least not Vasseur, with the new team boss billing technical leader David Sanchez’s exit after the Bahrain GP as “people who are very close to Mattia” as well as the natural flow of F1 staff movements.

Notably he held onto Laurent Mekies, Vasseur making it clear his assistant team principal and race director was here to stay and would be taking a bigger role within the Ferrari F1 organisation.

But, Vasseur was never going to be able to wave a magic wand over Ferrari’s structure and make them an overnight success.

Victims of their own hype

Former F1 president and team boss Luca di Montezemolo felt more needed to be done, declaring the Ferrari to be a “company without a leader”.

But di Montezemolo’s concerns about Ferrari didn’t stop there, the Italian unimpressed with Ferrari CEO Benedetto Vigna’s pre-season proclamation about a car of “unprecedented speed”.

Vigna declared ahead of the SF-23’s launch that the new Ferrari was a “single-seater that will be unprecedented in terms of speed”. It has yet to show even an inkling of that.

“I found the triumphalist speeches in the presentation wrong,” said di Montezemolo, “I was expecting a car that evolved from last year.”

They were also dogged by media reports of an engine that would be 30hp up on last season’s, a rumour that was repeated through much of the Italian media and it all came from ‘unnamed’ but ‘reliable sources’.

But while Ferrari, or at least some members of the team, were crowing about the car, it became clear to them very early on that their data was wrong – they expected this year’s cars to be slower given the revised floor regulations and they weren’t.

“I think with the change of regulation, the cars becoming slower, we thought that this was normal that the car would become a bit more peaky, less downforce,” said Carlos Sainz. “And we thought the targets were going to be okay and we were going to be fast.”

But then Ferrari got to Bahrain and “we saw immediately people haven’t suffered from the change regulations, they are much quicker than last year, and this left us thinking that we clearly have something that we didn’t get right.”

They were, even on the opening day of pre-season testing, aware they were in trouble.

Poor reliability and sluggish speed

But what the Scuderia didn’t foresee were the reliability issues that blighted Charles Leclerc’s Bahrain Grand Prix and which will have a knock-on effect for the remaining 22 races.

That they were woefully off the pace in Bahrain was, based on Sainz’s comments, expected even if they weren’t talking about it. But it could be said the team didn’t expect the gap to be as large as it was, Leclerc P3 but not in contention for the win when he retired.

He was lapping well behind Max Verstappen and showing no sign of chasing down Sergio Perez when, in a cry of “no, no, no”, his SF-23 lost power and the Monégasque driver pulled over onto the side of the track with his race over.

That turned out to be a Control Electronic issue, a part Ferrari changed overnight between qualifying and the race as they had concerns about some anomalies in the data. Eventually dubbed a wiring problem, it meant that come round two, the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix, Leclerc was already racking up the engine quota penalties.

Even more concerning though is that ahead of round three, Australia, Ferrari’s customers Haas and Alfa Romeo also moved onto fresh parts with both teams taking new ICEs for all four of their drivers. Added to that, Haas’ Nico Hulkenberg broke down two corners after the chequered flag with an MGU-K failure.

As Helmut Marko put it: “Ferrari has the more powerful engine, but what’s the point of having the more powerful engine if isn’t it reliable?”

That the unreliable engines is coupled with an SF-23 that Ferrari say is lacking in driveability, cornering speed, straight-line speed and “everywhere” compared to the Red Bull doesn’t help the situation.

Two drivers struggling for confidence

And it’s left both Leclerc and Sainz wondering what comes next.

With two retirements in the first three races of the season, and down in P7 in the one race he did finish, one can’t blame Leclerc if he was having flashbacks to 2020 and 2021’s winless seasons.

Speaking ahead of Melbourne, the five-time grand prix winner declared it was too early to write Ferrari out of the championship and that it would be wrong to “demotivate ourselves”.

72 hours later, he lamented: “The start of the season is a disaster, it’s really not the start of the season I was hoping for. DNF in Bahrain, penalty in Jeddah, and DNF here. Really not the start of the season I was hoping for.”

He added: “At the moment I don’t have long-term goals for this season. We have to think about finishing race by race without taking penalties and having problems.”

On the other side of the garage Carlos Sainz was in tears, literally, the Spaniard gutted by a five-second penalty for causing collision that dropped him from P4 to P12 in the restart non-start that was Australia’s lap 58.

He at least has 20 points on the board to Leclerc’s six but with Verstappen on 69 it seems Ferrari’s 2023 title hopes are already over.

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How can they fix it? Upgrades, upgrades, upgrades

With Sainz proclaiming the Red Bull is “superior everywhere, superior in qualy, in race, in straight-line speed, superior in medium and low speed corners, they’re superior with tyre management, they’re superior over the kerbs”, Ferrari need to make changes.

Easier said than paid for in today’s F1 with its budget cap.

With the new generation of F1 cars heavily dependent on their floors and the vortexes for airflow which creates the car’s downforce, Ferrari put the floor they’d test in Jeddah on the car in Melbourne.

It wasn’t a fix by any means but, according to Formu1a.uno, it ‘gave more load to the car making it more linear and consistent with the simulator data, helping the engineers to understand it better and giving them the basis for the development of this season.’

Up until now Ferrari have been a bit confused by a car that works in qualifying but then that same set-up costs them in the race, creating a tyre-eating monster similar to the one we saw last year.

It meant that despite a point-less Sunday in Melbourne, Leclerc DNF and Sainz penalised out of the points, Ferrari actually narrowed their deficit to Red Bull when it came to race pace: 0.154s in Bahrain, 0.159s in Saudi Arabia and 0.043s in Australia.

The new floor has helped but there’s a still a long way to go for the Scuderia with Vasseur recently highlighting Red Bull’s DRS advantage as another avenue Ferrari need to work on. “They are doing something different and they are doing something better for sure,” he said.

“But,” he confidently added, “we are on it.”

Speaking about the team’s overall upgrade plan, he said: “There is always a development plan before the start of the season, but at the same time there is room for change depending on the needs of the car.

“But we can’t massively change the plan, there are budget constraints. We have managed to speed up the process, some changes originally planned for Barcelona will arrive at Imola.”

Well, that’s one glimmer of hope…

Signs of life: Strategy and pit stop executive on the up

And that’s not the only positive, strategy and pit stops are also on the up for the Italian stable.

The target of 1000 pit stops during the off-season seems to have paid off as Ferrari were fastest in Bahrain with a 2.22s Leclerc, stop and third fastest with Sainz, while in Saudi Arabia they dropped that to a 2:10s with Leclerc and Sainz’s best stop worth sixth place on the list.

They weren’t quickest in Australia, that going to Red Bull, but still two out of three isn’t bad for a team that at times struggled – and were mocked – with pit stops in 2022.

But by far the biggest area where Ferrari were jeered last season was with their strategy blunders, and there’s been no sign of that so far this season.

In fact in Bahrain they made an inspired decision not to send Leclerc out for a second run in Q3 in qualifying in order to save an extra set of brand new softs for the race. That gave him the jump on Sergio Perez off the line, Leclerc up to P2 before the overwhelming pace of the Red Bull swallowed up the entire field.

Still they played the strategy game and for a change they played it right. That’s a step in the right direction.

Be decisive with F1 2024 car plans

But more steps are needed, even if it’s the very, very difficult ones, the swallow your pride ones.

Formula 1 is all about innovation, designers come up with the concept to beat all other concepts but sometimes, as Mercedes have recently alluded to, one has to concede their rival has the winning concept.

That, today, is Red Bull’s. The RB18 won 17 of last year’s 22 races and this season the RB19 is three from three, with rival drivers and pundits alike admitting this season could be a 23-0 whitewash in Red Bull’s favour.

It has Sainz admitting: “I think we realise now that Red Bull have a clear advantage everywhere and that we need to start looking to our right and to our left.”

But while Vasseur can’t promise that will happen this season, quashing talk of a B-spec car in light of budget constraints, the team boss has to be looking up and down the paddock at what works. Red Bull works.

As much as it must gall Vasseur, as it does Toto Wolff, the only thing that matters is a winning car and if copying a rival’s design leads to that, so be it.

Ferrari need to win, Vasseur needs Ferrari to win, Leclerc needs Ferrari to win, F1 needs Ferrari to win.

If they have to pin their colours to a red Red Bull as Aston Martin have done with their green one, then Ferrari need to do it and not waste today’s budget on a car that will in all likelihood never win a race, never mind a title. Rather bet it all on next year’s redder than red Red Bull.

All hail Ferrari, the 2024 title protagonists. They hope…