Sunday 26 February 2012

F1 2012 Season Preview: Ferrari - Red Revival?

Ferrari have been the talk of pre-season testing. But, unfortunately from their perspective, it's not been for the right reasons necessarily.

Credit: Gil Abrantes / CC
From looking at the F2012 it's clear that Ferrari have gone radical this year. The machine features, among other things, an aggressively sculpted rear end and, for the first time since 2001 on an F1 car anywhere, pullrod front suspension (bringing aero/packaging benefits). In an probability, this is exactly what they need - the Scuderia have been accused of creeping conservatism in their designs in recent years. However, the flip side of this approach is that, from testing, it appears that it's taking a while for them to get their heads around their new creation.

Ferrari's success this season therefore hinges on whether these struggles reflect merely time taken to find the sweet spot of their radical design (and if so how quickly they can do this), or whether they reflect fundamental flaws in the car.

Ferrari, like McLaren, made things relatively easy for Red Bull last year by starting their campaign on the back foot. In their case, the troubles came after pre-season testing rather than during it. Indeed, Ferrari won the 'winter championship' in many observers' eyes, but whatever advantage they had then evaporated when things got serious in the opening race meeting. A final round of technical upgrades for the first race didn't work, which after some investigation turned out to be down to a wind tunnel correlation problem - a blockage resultant from moving from 50% to 60% scale. By the time this was ascertained weeks of development time had been lost.

Nevertheless, the car had many problems in addition to this. It struggled persistently to get heat into its tyres both for a qualifying lap and when on the harder tyres in a race. Its exhaust blown diffuser never seemed as effective as those on the McLaren and Red Bull: it took them a while to adapt to the Red Bull/McLaren approach and in any case, without good tyre warm-up, aggressive blowing tended to result in too much understeer. And even with all of this, the car seemed rather conservatively designed at the outset, not pushing the boundaries in the way that the Red Bull did. This all conspired to result in a technical reshuffle at Maranello mid-season: with the long-serving Aldo Costa moved aside and Pat Fry instead heading things up.

So, Ferrari went radical for 2012 as mentioned. But in the opening test at Jerez the F2012 failed for the most part to trouble the top of the timing screens, and looked rather evil handling to observers. After a few days the cat was gradually let out of the bag - technical director Pat Fry admitted he was 'not happy' with where they were and Felipe Massa stating there was 'a lot of work' to do. Worse, there was some suggestion that the wind tunnel correlation problems of last year that impeded them so much may not be totally resolved, with Fry commenting that he 'wouldn't say it (the correlation) was perfect'. Seemingly the car handled inconsistently in the corners: fixing the entry of the corner messed up its handling in the middle and/or exit and so on. One thing the car did have going for it though is that it was said to have resolved the slow tyre warm-up problems of the 2011 machine.

Still, their subsequent testing in Barcelona gave more cause of optimism. Handling of the car, while not on the Red Bull/McLaren level, improved visibly, and the perception grew that Ferrari's expressed disappointment was more related to not being ahead of Red Bull, rather than being seriously off their position in the scheme of things in 2011. Fernando Alonso summed this up: 'We don’t know if it will be a season or triumph or disappointment. Our plan is ambitious; we want to win from the first race, but I don’t know where we are'. And come the end of the week Massa was sounding positively hopeful that the Scuderia were now moving forward: 'We have found the direction to have a much better car to drive. Not just for lap time, but also for consistency. This year we have so many directions and possibilities the most important thing was to find the right one. Now I think we've found it.'

This, alongside the myriad of innovative design features on the F2012, means no one in the pit lane is writing Ferrari off yet. If they can find the steps on its set up ladder soon, you suspect the thing could fly.

Credit: / CC
Fernando Alonso - Car #5
For all of Ferrari's testing maladies, they definitely can console themselves with one thing: the performance of their lead driver can be taken as a given. If Ferrari can provide Fernando Alonso with a car even remotely capable of winning the championship they can be confident that he will deliver one.

Last year was witness to the twice-champion at the very top of his game. The Ferrari 150° Italia was never up to the challenge and Alonso consistently flattered it, carrying it on his back of a fortnightly basis it seemed. His car was usually the fifth fastest out there (evidenced by the fact he qualified in fifth place almost everywhere), but with this he took ten podium finishes, including one win, and was in contention for second place in the drivers' table right up to the final race. It can be said that he outperformed his machinery emphatically.

This he did with a series of tigerish, tenacious and consistently on-the-edge race day drives, in which he could be counted to make the most of whatever hand he was dealt, and to make a thorough nuisance of himself with the Red Bulls and McLarens. Almost never did he have an off-day. As Mark Webber commented last week: 'As long as Fernando has a steering wheel in his hand he is always there. You can never discount Fernando.'

We can surely expect more of the same from Fernando in 2012. Like Vettel, he seems to be a perfect fit within his team, and his commitment to the Ferrari cause and contentment at Maranello was demonstrated by his signing of a long term deal last season. And if the potential of the F2012 can be extracted then just watch him go.

Credit: Mark McArdle / CC
Felipe Massa - Car #6
This year is very much last chance saloon for Felipe Massa.

The last two seasons have been desperately disappointing for the Brazilian, and if anything last year was a step backwards from his 2010 efforts. In a year that team mate Alonso claimed ten podium finishes, Massa never came home higher than in fifth place (and thus became the first Ferrari driver to complete a full season without a podium finish since Didier Pironi in 1981). And worse, his behaviour in and out of the car took on a frustrated, scrappy edge as the season proceeded. This was most notably characterised by a series of run-ins with Lewis Hamilton. Massa was certainly the victim in a lot of these cases, but his strong arm tactics when racing with Hamilton were often counter-productive and his series of barbs against his rival out of the car struck me as a classic case of displacement.

It's all a long way from the guy who came within a point of the world drivers' title in 2008. Debates as to why there has been such an apparent drop-off are well-trodden and varied. Whatever the case, Massa's Ferrari contract expires at the end of the year, and while the decision to replace him then may not be finally taken, one suspects that the decision-makers in Maranello are mentally a long way down that path.

But Felipe has one more year's grace at Maranello (with a large dollop of circumstance, such as Robert Kubica's injury, helping his retention), so what can he do to save himself? No one doubts that beating Fernando Alonso is a difficult challenge, especially in a team that has to a large extent been built around the Spaniard. But, Ferrari are a team that want to win constructors' titles as well as those for drivers'. At the very least they'll expect Massa to finish a bit closer behind Alonso than he has been as well as take points from Ferrari's rivals with some regularity.

If he can do this Ferrari might just be minded to keep him on for 2013. If he can't, then it looks like a midfield team is the best he can hope for.

1 comment:

  1. Today there's an interview with Flavio Briatore at Omnicorse, where he mentions about the lack of humanity in F1, as opposed to aerodynamics.

    What he really means is that there's a large emphasize on the car and the technology, rather than the driver skills.
    My point is related to Massa this time: if he doesn't have a proper car, he's unlikely to deliver, which isn't fair.
    Worst thing is that he knows he's fighting to stay in F1, and I certainly don't want to walk in his shoes right now - this would be an immense pressure.

    So, I hope that Ferrari will unleash full potential as soon as possible. This is likely to happen, IMHO, because their development started very early compared to other teams.