Saturday 19 March 2011

F1 2011 Season Preview: Ferrari - Street-fighting horses chasing the Bulls

'We have to win every year, because we are Ferrari' said a tifosi member on BBC's recent excellent The Changing Worlds of Formula 1 documentary.

And in 2011 this applies, if anything, more than usual. The frustration of last season's near miss on the drivers' title will have building up over the winter, waiting to be unleashed from Melbourne onwards. And for Ferrari a title from 2011 is the minimum requirement.

There are plenty of other reasons to believe that the Prancing Horse will give the Red Bulls much to ponder this year. Last year Ferrari successfully recovered from a difficult 2009, reversing what some reckoned was a terminal post Todt/Brawn/Schumi etc decline. They've been close to the Red Bull pace in this year's pre-season testing, and some suggest that they're ahead of them on the longer runs. Relatively low tyre wear rates have been a strength for Ferrari for a number of years, and this could really play into their hands on race day in 2011 with this year's Pirellis.

What is also fascinating is that Ferrari's approach differs fundamentally from that of Red Bull. They've not tried to out-Newey Adrian Newey (sensible - given there's one one of him) and instead gone for something of an adaptable, street-fighting strategy.

Many were surprised with what appeared to be a conservatively-designed Ferrari that appeared at their car launch, and their going-against-the-grain decision to opt for push rod, rather than pull rod, suspension. But the thing has flown in testing, as mentioned, and it's been almost bullet-proof on reliability as well, comfortably completing more distance than any of its rivals (and almost double that of the McLaren).

And it may be that their push rod suspension gives them the best of both worlds, getting the set-up flexibility over a weekend you usually get with a push rod approach, with what looks like a tightly packaged rear section and low centre of gravity that one might more associate with pull rod suspension.

Ferrari are hoping this combination of pace, relentlessness, flexibility, reliability, as well as razor sharp tactical calls led by new recruits Neil Martin (from Red Bull) and Pat Fry (from McLaren) will be enough to topple the Bulls. It certainly sounds formidable. And with Alonso at the wheel - who in 2010 provided a driver-focussed galvanising force that the team seems to respond so well to (think Ascari, Lauda, Schumi...) - they have the perfect fit for such an approach in the cockpit.

Fernando Alonso - Car #5
Rather like Clay Regazzoni and Gilles Villeneuve, Fernando Alonso could have been put on the earth to drive Ferraris. And last season he moulded the team around himself, and the team in turn provided him with the wheels good enough for him to come within a dud strategy call in the last race of picking up his third title, having been 47 points off the top after Silverstone.

One of the reasons that the 2010 season was a great one was that it featured Alonso's return to the sharp end of the grid, and from Hockenhein onwards he looked just like his old self from the Renault championship years. Relentless, aggressive, consistent, mistake-free, good with the team, as well as bloody quick. It's not for nothing that many see Alonso as the most complete driver in the sport right now.

Like his team, Fernando will be looking to pick up where they left off in the second half of last season. Martin Brundle reckons that Alonso, being 'massively frustrated' at losing out on the title last year, this year will be 'immense' and 'all guns and just giving it absolutely everything'. Perhaps just as importantly Alonso also needs to avoid the points-costing and ultimately championship-costing mistakes which curiously peppered his first half of last season. His is also one of the sharpest racing brains there is, which will be helpful when it comes to managing the Pirelli tyres through each stint and making pitstops at the right time.

The pace of the Ferraris in this year's testing suggests that last year was just the beginning of a beautiful friendship between driver and team. For both parties, only the championship will represent a satisfactory outcome from 2011.

Felipe Massa - Car #6
No one envies Felipe Massa's prospects heading into the 2011 season. His options are stark: either he gets on terms with Fernando Alonso, one way or another (not easy). If he doesn't manage this, the team will become even more Alonso-centric, meaning he'll likely to have to accept the role of de facto number two, whose role is to support Alonso and to take points from his rivals. And if he doesn't accept this (and there's nothing in his public pronouncements to suggest that he would) he'd likely be looking for employment with another team come the season's end, and it's not at all obvious where else he'd get a competitive ride for 2012 onwards.

Theories seeking to explain Massa's struggles relative to his team mate last year are well-circulated. Massa himself blamed not being able to get heat into the Bridgestone tyres for qualifying (though that was somewhat pooh-poohed by the tyre manufacturer, and in any case drivers should be able to adapt), while others reckoned that he hadn't fully recovered from his near-fatal 2009 accident at Hungary. In truth though, it seems most likely that the major part of his woes reflect that beating Fernando Alonso is something else entirely, on and off the track, compared with his beating of the Kimi Raikkonen of 2008 and 2009. And it's not likely to get much easier in 2011.

More positively, Felipe says that the Pirelli tyres suit him better than last year's Bridgestones, and his testing times look solid (though it remains to be seen the extent that this is down to him driving the wheels off his car rather than sticking to the programme). And of course Felipe has surprised us before, but I'd be astonished if he matches Alonso over this season.


  1. Great article - and good point about rear suspension. Given tyre degradation seem in testing then THAT might give Ferrari to adapt set up more quickly and effectively over Red Bull. Ellice (F1isP1)

  2. Great piece on Ferrari and the drivers. I still feel gutted that Alonso lost the WDC the way he did and look forward to his carrying on where he left off and pushing to the very end again and this time taking that title. I actually think we might be surprised by Felipe this season. Think the Pirellis will be more up his street and make him more competitive. ally4kiki

  3. Thanks very much both of you for your comments - as well as for your compliments on the article!

    I agree that the Pirellis are the big unknown this year, and how drivers and teams learn to deal with them (and how quickly) could be vital. It'll be interesting!