Thursday, 10 April 2014

Fears for Ferrari

All in, it's hard to see how last Sunday could have gone worse for Ferrari.

Much of the Scuderia's royalty was in attendance for the Bahrain Grand Prix; Luca Montezemolo, Piero Lardi Ferrari, Claudio Lombardi, in a region that is a highly important market for the organisation's road cars. An F1 race has its uses as a shop window.

Another year has started disappointingly for Ferrari,
and things could be getting critical
Photo: Octane Photography
And in Montezemolo's case he was there also so that he could don his political hat, to circulate the place conspicuously and state his view to anyone that would listen that the new spec F1 was potentially cataclysmic to the sport's health and that urgent change was required. A reminder that Ferrari remains as willing as ever to take a holistic approach to getting results; fighting its battles both off-track and on (for all that he protested otherwise Montezemolo wouldn't have argued for change unless he thought it would benefit his team's competitiveness).

The problem was what happened where it really matters. Out on the circuit. There, the Ferraris were simply brick slow. And the problem moreover was where they were brick slow, rather unusually for the red cars it was on the straights that they were losing out; time after time it seemed the Mercedes powered machines took metres out of them in the extended sections wherein the loud pedal could be deployed on full noise. The Sakhir layout could have been designed to show such a problem up mercilessly, and it did.

Having lost position to Nico Hulkenberg's Force India early on, which cruised past the Ferrari like it was parked, each syllable of Fernando Alonso's words on the team radio - and transmitted on the TV world feed for all of our benefits - must have felt like repeated punches in the stomach for the team: 'We don’t have the power to keep him behind' (and to emphasise the fact as he said it so the feed cut to Montezemolo in the pit garage, looking rather like one chewing on a razor blade).

You may think that Ferrari's been off the pace for a while, so what's new? Well, there are plenty reasons to think that things are much more perilous for all concerned this time, and not just because the clock is ticking since the team's last championship (the constructors' crown of 2008). In previous years the team had lost out in an aero battle, mainly to Red Bull. That's one thing, as down Maranello way few pulses are quickened by aerodynamics. Engines however are something else; those have always been the real badge of honour for Ferrari ever since the freshman days of the Commendatore Enzo Ferrari. And this time it's losing out in an engine battle. On the evidence of Bahrain it's seriously losing out in it.

And Ferrari is facing the seemingly irrefutable fact that Mercedes - a rival manufacturer of performance cars - has taken the same new set of rules, started with the same blank sheet of paper, at the same time, if anything with less in the way of resource and facilities (Ferrari of course is aided by an ultra-generous financial deal with Bernie) and cleanly leapt ahead having done a markedly better job. Further this new formula was supposed to suit the Scuderia, indeed the V6 element was brought in late in the day pretty much exclusively at Ferrari's behest.

Luca Montezemolo had plenty to say in Bahrain
Photo: Octane Photography
Even the diverting nature of the race was in its way bad news; shooting as it did the fox that Montezemolo (among others) was doing his best to set loose that the sport this year wasn't serving up entertainment. Everywhere in Bahrain it seemed for the Italian squad there were possible causes for regret. Even on the podium where Mercedes celebrated its latest triumph, who went up to pick up the trophy on behalf of the victorious constructor? Why, Aldo Costa. Former Ferrari Technical Director. Who left the team after being shunted to one side as a consequence of a tepid start to the 2011 season. It was almost like the Gods were making a positive point of maximising the team's discomfort.

Ferrari isn't quite the highly-strung environment that it once was, but you feel that its time-honoured combustible tendencies still linger within the place somewhere. Therefore you fear for them in terms of what the reaction will be in that outfit to what it's experiencing in the early weeks of the 2014 campaign. And with this in mind I recalled the words of James Allen said on the eve of this season's opening round in Melbourne: 'Behind the scenes I think there's a developing story there. The scene is becoming quite political at Ferrari, and there's one or two new characters in the management structure, not high profile people but people who've been around Ferrari for a while who are starting to get involved in the Formula One team, and I have a nasty feeling that things will get a little bit like The Borgias there, and especially if they don't start winning soon. My unfortunate prediction for this season is that things could get really quite nastily political in the second half of the season.'

Seasoned Scuderia watchers will shudder at this, redolent as it is of the debilitating in-fighting that has characterised the team's very darkest days of its long past. For more pressing reasons even than usual, Ferrari needs to find some pace and quickly.

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