I wish I’d taken a look at Ferrari’s odds of winning the 2015 Formula 1 World Championship in late December last year. If only because it would have given me a better intro to this piece than to say I wished I had.
You see, there’s no way on earth I’d have wasted a penny on the bet back then. I don’t know of many inside the paddock who would have done either. Perhaps not even Sebastian Vettel. And yet here we sit, albeit after only three races, and regardless of the as-yet humble proclamations from Maranello that they’re a long way off fighting for the title… Ferrari might just have a genuine shot.
Continuity is key in sport. Especially in Formula 1. Upheaval can create power vacuums just as easily as power surges. Fragile egos get dented. Uncertainty prevails and confidence suffers. The key to success, so we are told, is consistency.
And so last December our focus rested on the Scuderia. Team boss Marco Mattiacci was gone, replaced by the Marlboro Man, Maurizio Arrivabene. Engineering chief Pat Fry had left the team along with engine boss Nicholas Tombazias, ex-Bridgestone supremo Hirohide Hamashima and chief strategist Neil Martin. Luca di Montezemolo, the highest profile link to the days of Enzo Ferrari, was no more. An earthquake was ripping through Maranello. And nobody saw how it could work out for the best.
Yet it is working. And it is working fast.
Of course, the foundations for the revival were made well before the upheaval, but those putting it into effect today are a new breed at Ferrari. Such is the adoration placed upon the team by its religiously fanatical Tifosi, that its employees can become demi-Gods. But those Arrivabene has put into the critical roles of importance at his team are not big names. And under his watch, no egos are to be permitted to self-inflate. Not even his own.
When Sebastian Vettel took victory in Malaysia, it would have been only too easy for the charming silver-haired team boss to climb onto the podium. Instead, having been in place only four months, he looked along the line of colleagues and saw a man who had been with the Scuderia for 10 years. He sent Operations Director Diego Loverno in his place. In Arrivabene’s own words, “Diego represents all those not only with a beautiful mind but also with dirty hands here and in Maranello. He was up there because they represent the passion and the focus of the Ferrari team.”
It’s one of the reasons why Fernando Alonso has been so swiftly replaced in the hearts of all those in Maranello. While nobody at the team would ever doubt the Spaniard’s raw ability and pace, he was a divisive personality and one quick to pour scorn without suggestion of solution. Vettel is quite the opposite, so team members tell me, and his work ethic, while at polar opposites to Raikkonen, has immediately ingratiated him into the team. While Fernando the man is much missed by the many friends he made at Ferrari, Fernando the ego-driven racing driver is not.
The quiet and unassuming James Allison has taken control of the ship from a technical perspective and has put in place a team of experienced, highly regarded but little-known names to the outside world. The re-appearance of Toni Cuquerella is one such example of Allison’s employment considerations. Cuquerella engineered the giant killing exploits of Super Aguri before moving to BMW Sauber where he formed a close relationship with Robert Kubica who spoke highly of the Spaniard to Allison during his time at Enstone. Allison, it seems, heeded the Pole’s words.
We are not talking about big name signings, just simple, effective appointments.
But a solid team is only half the battle. The fight then has to be mounted on track.
Following winter testing, Ferrari was convinced that it was the only team that could pose a realistic threat to Mercedes. But even Ferrari had not expected to snatch a victory from them so early in the season. The reason Ferrari already has a winners’ trophy in 2015, however, is that it is racing smart. The team has realised that if it applies pressure to the dominant force of 2014, then it can squeeze a mistake. Essentially, it’s involved in a high stakes game of chicken.
The team’s only disappointment in Australia was that it was as far behind Mercedes as it was at the flag. Note afterwards, the calm response from Arrivabene that the team knew what it needed to do and that it was ready to fight.
In Malaysia two weeks later, Ferrari may have made its tyres work better than Mercedes, but it also capitalised on the problematic running experienced by the champions to maximise its advantage and force the Silver Arrows into a catastrophic strategic failure. A pitwall renowned over the past years for its own strategic failings, Ferrari had found calm and forced Mercedes into a mistake.
It was something the team attempted to do just this last weekend in China, too. With Mercedes holding a track position advantage, all Mercedes theoretically had to do to win the Grand Prix was to keep Ferrari behind, look after their tyres and react to Ferrari’s strategy, putting on exactly the same tyres as Vettel when he came in.
But Ferrari had figured out this was precisely Mercedes’ strategy, so they pitted Vettel earlier than they needed to. On his second set of softs, Vettel pushed hard and in so doing forced the issue with Rosberg. Rosberg, frustrated at being caught, tried to get Hamilton to speed up. Rosberg’s tyres were falling off and Ferrari knew it, so again they pitted early in the knowledge that their mediums would last longer than Mercedes and in the hope that Rosberg would have to stay out for a few more laps to make a stop for mediums viable.
Ultimately it didn’t work out quite as planned, as Rosberg and Mercedes reacted immediately, thus avoiding being leap-frogged by Vettel. As it panned out, the Ferrari’s pace on medium was not as competitive as expected and Mercedes’ durability far better than anticipated. But it wasn’t far off working.
Ferrari therefore knows it has to play smart in 2015 if it is going to have a chance at taking race wins and possibly even fighting for the title. And that extends to its drivers.
I do wonder what happened between the end of the race and when the drivers spoke to the press. Was Rosberg always stewing? Or do we think one German had a word with another and asked why he had allowed his team-mate to hold him up when he was being caught? Sebastian Vettel is as shrewd and sneaky as they come. After Multi 21 I termed him the Smiling Assassin, and I’d be delighted if that version of Vettel is back. I can imagine Vettel seeing an opportunity to wind Rosberg up, and needling him at his most vulnerable.
Because a divided Mercedes is far easier to beat than one united. After just three races of 2015, the mental fragility which cost Nico Rosberg the championship lead and ultimately the 2014 world title, is in full evidence. Mercedes has already openly stated it will consider splitting strategies and that one of their drivers might have to bite the bullet and accept de facto number two status. And that won’t be Lewis Hamilton.
The world champion was effectively driving around in China with the top down, his arm up on the window, belting out power ballads. In practice he was missing his braking points, miles off apexes and was still comfortably fastest. When he needed to in the race, he turned on the kind of pace which would have put him half way to Bahrain by the chequered flag.
Right now, Lewis Hamilton isn’t Ferrari’s focus. Like any predator, Ferrari is focusing on the weakest member of the pack. They’re playing smart. Very smart.
It’s game on.
I wouldn’t have put money on me saying that last December.