Sunday 2 March 2014

F1 2014 Season Preview: Ferrari - Dark horses?

Nico Rosberg summed it up. In the middle of the third and final pre-season test before everyone headed out to Melbourne for round one he reckoned he had a good handle on where his Mercedes team was on pace relative to all others. Well, all apart from one. For him, Ferrari remained a mystery. And he wasn't the only one feeling this way.

Photo: Octane Photography
Perhaps appropriately F1's most enigmatic team has been the enigma of 2014 pre-season testing, for the most part getting on with its business without drawing attention to itself; in Anthony Rowlinson's words performing 'a measured and consistent programme'.

Confusing the whole issue, with Ferrari there was none of the extremes on show at either end of the spectrum from Mercedes or from Renault/Red Bull - instead the consensus is that while neither team nor engine were experiencing anything like the woes of Red Bull or Renault, and indeed were running pretty reliably at least, they weren't reaching for the stars either.

One Ferrari 'insider' was quoted in the final test saying that the Italian power unit is ceding some 75bhp to the Merc, with the Scuderia struggling to understand how the German marque was extracting so much power from the fuel restrictions. Certainly, even before this year the Ferrari engine tended to be more fuel-thirsty than the rest. Equally certainly, there has been no rising-tide-lifts-all-boats experience with the Ferrari unit as there has with all of those powered by Mercedes, and if Ferrari has ceded ground then with engine homologation clawing it back won't be easy. While the F14 T has looked a bit of a handful out on track, particularly with a loose rear end both upon acceleration (which caught Kimi Raikkonen out in Bahrain, resulting in him ending a test day slightly early after a smash) as well as more generally aerodynamically, something that has been a Ferrari trait for a while.

But nevertheless there seems a fairly strong case for optimism. All the way through testing only the Ferrari has been a consistent presence among the Merc-powered teams at the business end of the timing screens. At the very least, one would imagine that if the eight Mercedes-powered cars will get into Q3 at Melbourne then it will be the two Ferraris that complete the ten. And in the third test the red cars started to show their hand, and the lap times were fairly impressive: not quite on the level on show from the Mercedes but seemingly enough to place it in the next group up with the likes of McLaren and Williams. Edd Straw described the Scuderia as 'coming up the rails', while some optimists have Ferrari as the Merc's closest challenger.

Furthermore, the Ferrari design has just about the tightest cooling out there, which reflects well on the team's confidence in the engine's reliability and in how the whole package works together. Its millstone of the past few years of wind tunnel correlation and having to use the Toyota tunnel in Cologne appears lifted too, with its own tunnel recalibrated, reopened and reportedly giving results that chime well with what is happening on track. That the team turned up to the second Bahrain test with loads of upgrades may show a collective with its technical swagger back. While for those of you who like their history, on previous occasions wherein the rules have changed radically, in particular engine rules, Ferrari has tended to be right there right away.

And in a converse sense Ferrari's low profile is likely to bode well, as had a red car gone after a headline-grabbing low fuel glory run it would have set off alarm bells, that the team had felt the need to get the Italian press off its back - indeed one recalls that it was in 2012's pre-season that everyone really knew that the car then was struggling when it did precisely that.

But whatever is the case at the broadest level the Scuderia simply must deliver this year. It's got all of the budget and facilities in the world, its previous wind tunnel problems sorted and its simulation capacity much improved, star technical recruits such as James Allison and Dirk de Beer, and one of the strongest driver line ups that the sport has ever seen, both experienced and smart - exactly what you want with the new formula. President Luca Montezemolo has already given his pronouncement, that he is 'sick of coming second', and you feel that Ferrari has to make a credible championship challenge - and unlike the one in 2012 one not so conspicuously based on the skills of one of its drivers - at the very least. There is nowhere to hide. It all should concentrate the mind beautifully.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car #7
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 more than most activities likes to remind us to never say never; that nobody knows anything. And you wouldn't have to rewind too far to find days when the suggestion of Kimi Raikkonen returning to Ferrari would have brought considerable and universal hilarity. The Finn had been paid not to drive for the team just four years previously, things then apparently ended badly with Luca Montezemolo, and he's not known for letting bygones be bygones. Perhaps Claudio Langes getting the gig would have been more probable. But here we are.

The move had something of the gunshot wedding about it, and from both parties' perspectives. From Kimi's point of view, his Lotus love affair was long over, owed as he was upwards of 16m Euros for last season's efforts. While Red Bull, against many expectations, chose to hire from within in replacing Mark Webber. Ferrari was therefore the only available competitive ride that remained. As for Ferrari, that team was spooked by the growing strain in its relationship with Fernando Alonso, particularly as his manager paid a rather conspicuous visit to Christian Horner in the Hungary paddock, which meant that the Italian team - whether as a punishment or to protect its future (or both) - quickly snapped up the handily-available Kimi.

Since his return from his two-year rallying detour what we can expect from Kimi in F1 has been pretty clear. Perhaps the outer edge of devastating pace, particularly in comparison to his McLaren days and especially over a single lap, has gone; indeed in this his Lotus team mate Romain Grosjean seemed capable of exploring territory that Kimi couldn't, especially late on last season (though then there may have been mitigating circumstances). But what we have now is reliable finishing and persistent points bagging, via a series of tenacious, quick and committed race performances.

Alongside Fernando Alonso we'll get a clearer picture on such matters. And his match-up with a man who has long had the Scuderia to himself will be a challenging one, and with Kimi's skill set similar to Alonso's (less good in quali but excellent in races) the area in which he can establish an upper hand isn't clear. But still, he'll be the Spaniard's most imposing intra-team challenger since 2007, and the pointy, torquey handling of the new turbos will suit Kimi's driving preferences. There also remains the question of Kimi's previous stint in Maranello: then Kimi was frustrated at an environment somewhat unresponsive to his needs, and Alonso presumably will be drawing a lot of attention to himself, much more than Massa did last time. What can Kimi do to stop history repeating itself?

Fernando Alonso - Car #14
Photo: Octane Photography
Fernando Alonso endured more of the same of his Ferrari time in 2013: yet another season of frustration, failing technical upgrades, and swimming against the tide with inferior equipment to his rivals. And perhaps for the first time since he arrived in Maranello the relationship between driver and team developed a certain tautness, visible to those on the outside. The show has since just about been kept on the road, but it's not yet clear whether there's been a rapprochement or merely an uneasy truce.

But whatever has been going on Ferrari would be best advised to keep Alonso sweet. Once again last season Fernando Alonso was the best thing about the Scuderia, and his second place in the drivers' table grandly flattered the F138, a car that started with promise but rather flat-lined, as well as wasn't suited to the mid-year Pirelli changes; a car that by consensus was but the fourth best out there.

And as Jody Scheckter noted recently, Ferrari has 'a short memory'. The past counts for little, and the team will pull towards the driver that's getting the job done. It's also hard to imagine that Alonso's political base at Maranello has evaporated. But as an indirect consequence of it all Alonso faces the most formidable intra-team foe he ever has at Ferrari - indeed more formidable than he's faced since his annus horribilis of 2007 at McLaren - in Kimi Raikkonen. Another world champion. Ferrari's last.

And of course, there have been plentiful - and often gleeful - references to Alonso's experiences alongside Lewis Hamilton in 2007, with many concluding that just as night follows day that in similar circumstances we'll see the same again this year. There are plenty of reasons to think that things could be different this time however. For one thing, Alonso's an incumbent at the team, well-ensconced, knows each and every button to press, rather than being new as he was then up against a guy who'd been there since the age of 13. For another, no matter how well Kimi Raikkonen does this year he will not have the surprise element that Lewis did in 2007, nor likely the pace. And moreover, assuming that exactly the same will happen again necessarily also assumes that Alonso hasn't learned a great deal from his McLaren year, or more generally, since. Something that I find hard to believe.

Kimi will claim a greater slice of the Ferrari pie than Felipe Massa tended to in Alonso's time, plus there will be days that Kimi will be on top, almost inevitably. But still, so long as Alonso avoids implosions à la at Woking the probability for a number of reasons is that he'll have the upper hand over a season, possibly comfortably so.

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