FEATURE: Why 2018 could finally be Ferrari's year
“I have no interest in life outside racing cars.” That single-minded attitude defined Enzo Ferrari’s approach to F1, and helps explain why his famous team remain the most successful of all. But for all their glorious history, it’s now 10 years since the Prancing Horse returned a world title. Could 2018 finally be their year? As Lawrence Barretto explains, the early signs are good…
Waiting. Ferrari are familiar with that word. Their faithful watched 21 years go by between Jody Scheckter’s title triumph in 1979 and Michael Schumacher’s crowning in 2000. It felt like an eternity. Replicating that painful drought is some way off for now, with Ferrari currently on 10 years and counting since their last world championship success, but the frustration they suffered then is just as intense now.
After a disappointing 2016, Sebastian Vettel brought the Scuderia agonisingly close to the Holy Grail last year. Speak to many in the paddock, and they'll say he should have won it. The German led the championship until Ferrari’s home race in Italy - the point at which the team's hopes imploded in the most spectacular of fashions. First Vettel and team mate Kimi Raikkonen were eliminated on the first lap of the Singapore Grand Prix. Then mechanical gremlins hit in Malaysia and Japan. It was a disaster and killed off their title hopes for yet another year.
But whereas that scenario could have flung Ferrari into a downward spiral, they regrouped quickly, winning in Brazil. That Ferrari was still a contender for victories at the end of last season is important. It means their development rate was strong enough to keep them in the championship fight until the bitter end - something that has not always been the case.
There’s a genuine air of confidence sweeping through the halls of Maranello right now...
Only time will tell as to whether the Prancing Horse can replicate the feat again this year. Recent history is not in their favour. Not since 2008, when Ferrari last won the constructors’ championship, have they managed to follow up one extremely strong season with another.
And their aggressive approach to this year’s car, switching to a significantly longer wheelbase like rivals Mercedes whilst sticking with the higher rake design, could be seen as a risk. It’s clear from testing that while the car looks quick and shows great potential, the team do not yet know how to get the best out of it.
As Ferrari battle to understand their car, the early gap to Mercedes could balloon. But once they get on top of it, the ultimate gains could be big. Everyone wants more downforce and Ferrari’s new design has the potential to deliver that benefit at both ends of the car. They just need to develop quickly – something they were able to do impressively last year.
Ferrari's form across 2017 was encouraging. They took five wins, which is their biggest haul since 2010 and followed a year when they failed to reach the top step at any point. Also consider that in the previous six years, they stood on top of the rostrum just eight times. There were improvements in one-lap pace, too. Ferrari had become known as a team that was far stronger in races than in qualifying. But last year, Ferrari achieved five poles - one more than they managed in the previous seven years combined.
There’s also stability inside Maranello. In recent years, Ferrari have swung the axe freely, which created uncertainty among staff and effectively reset any progress as people had to get used to new positions and working with new people.
I can't wait to be in Australia. I have confidence in our car
Over the winter, there have only been minor tweaks, with staff moved to make better use of their skillsets, but nothing dramatic. There is genuine support for Technical Director Mattia Binotto, who was drafted in to head up the technical team following James Allison’s departure in 2016.
Binotto is well-respected by the staff that work for and around him. He has backed the change in culture and helped improve the atmosphere inside the red walls. It’s a clear step change and his team have rallied round him. The effects are starting to filter through into performance – and results.
There’s a genuine air of confidence sweeping through the halls of Maranello right now. That’s a marked change to last year, when Ferrari were at pains to play down their expectations, having endured such a miserable 2016 season. Reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton even declared them favourites heading to the season-opener in Australia.
"We're starting from a good base with our SF71H car," Vettel said. "Now we'll have to work on development to further explore and improve its potential. I have a lot of confidence in our team, I know how skilled and committed the guys in Maranello are.
"We, too, did a good job in terms of mileage [in testing], totalling some 4,323 km of running. I have a personal best of 188 laps in one day, which is 875 km and a total of nearly 3,000 km. We did not experience any major issues with the car, and I had fun driving it.
"I can't wait to be in Australia, because once we get on track there, we will all be driving and racing under the same conditions. I have confidence in our car."
Overall it’s a strong package. It’s very reliable
Ferrari stole the headlines in testing, as chief rivals Mercedes kept their powder dry. Vettel set an unofficial lap record as he clocked 1m17.182s on Pirelli's new hypersoft tyres, and Raikkonen was pretty handy on low-fuel, too, with the second fastest time. The Iceman feels Ferrari could have improved their lap times even further if they wanted to.
“I’m sure if we want to go faster, we can, but it doesn’t mean anything,” said Raikkonen, who will this year compete in his 16th F1 season. “Overall it’s a strong package. It’s very reliable. It seems to work in a pretty easy way. Until [Australia], we are only guessing [where everyone is].”
Much was made of Mercedes and Red Bull’s pace over long-runs in Barcelona, but Vettel is not reading too much into that data. "Our competitors - Mercedes and Red Bull - used one type of tyre for their race distance simulations, which is something you can't do in a Grand Prix," said Vettel. "This has an impact on the strategies and ultimately on the result."
As Raikkonen is so fond of saying, it is a waste of time trying to predict form and it is instead better to wait until the racing starts. But the early signs for Ferrari, who are searching for a record 17th constructors’ championship and 16th drivers’ title, and their loyal tifosi following are encouraging. Defending champions Mercedes may have their hands full this year…