Saturday, 28 February 2015

F1 2015 Season Preview: Ferrari - Order out of chaos

'Oddly enough, despite all the catastrophe going on around the outside of it at the management level, they could just fluke into a good car next year because it's the first of the James Allison cars, and the engine this year (in 2014) was deliberately configured to be small and concentrate on heat rejection for the benefit of aerodynamics. Now that's turned out not to be the way to go. So there's a big chunk to be easily found there. So they may well be...much more competitive.'

Photo: Octane Photography
These are the words of Motorsport magazine's Mark Hughes late last year. Prophetic I'm sure you'll agree.

The rate of heads on spikes at Maranello that season was rapid even by the standards of its most darkest of days from history: Montezemolo, Domenicali, Fry, Marmorini, Alonso. Plenty of flux was going on elsewhere in addition, with a split from FIAT and a flotation. And then at the season's end almost unthinkably Marco Mattiacci, the guy who replaced Stefano Domenicali as team principal as something of a company high-flyer and apparently was doing a lot of the right things, was himself shown the door amid considerable mystery (some reckon it goes back to something before he got involved in the F1 team).

Wags pointed out also that Ferrari's new driver pairing for 2015 was made up of two who were blown away by their team mates last year; as well as arguably were the two - certainly among the front-liners - who struggled most with the new breed of F1 car.

But as Hughes pointed out, there still despite this apparent descent into chaos was a good chance that the Scuderia could nevertheless produce a car that would allow it a conspicuous forward step in the competitive order, due to a combination of conspicuous power unit gain and this being the first car properly from the technical leadership of the extremely highly-rated James Allison, who reportedly was given complete control. And it appears that is exactly what's happened.

Throughout the opening test at Jerez the red machine was near or at the top of the times almost habitually, and while we all know the disclaimers about such headline marks rivals nevertheless were impressed.

Daniel Ricciardo noted of Sebastian Vettel's 1m 20 effort there: 'I don’t know the fuel, tyres, whatever but in any case it was a good time', then in Barcelona's first test showed outward surprise when told that Kimi Raikkonen's Thursday time was set on medium tyres. Nico Rosberg meanwhile admitted in Jerez that the Ferrari pace was an 'eye opener' while in Barcelona he noted that of all the Merc's rivals it was Ferrari that had made the 'biggest step' in relation to it.

On the power unit front the red team appears to have focussed on the things it was bad at last year - namely its power delivery and energy harvesting. It also appears to have clawed back the power deficit at least to the Mercedes of 2014, judging by the words of Sauber's Felipe Nasr (also powered by a Ferrari unit) who drove last year's Williams with a Merc engine and reckoned this Ferrari unit felt 'very similar'. There apparently is more to come from the engine too, though is should be tempered a little though with that Mercedes is reckoned to have found up to another 60bhp itself between seasons.

And as well as reliability problems being rare out on track the car has looked the business, with the chassis's own 2014 bugbear of a weak front end also looking largely resolved, the machine appearing consistently responsive and nimble through tight chicanes and elsewhere. At the time of writing the car's performance on a race run is less clear, but the consensus remains that at the very least Ferrari is in the general sense in the middle of the fight with Williams and Red Bull for the best behind the Mercedes.

The new boss Maurizio Arrivabene charmed the assembled media in Barcelona, and spoke of an improved atmosphere in the squad wherein team members will feel more comfortable in making decisions, an oft-observed problem down Maranello way in recent times: 'when people are under pressure, with everybody trying to cover themselves, this creates a kind of mess into the team' he said pointedly.

But then again, it's amazing too how doing better on the stopwatch suddenly can make other problems go away. Ferrari probably won't challenge Mercedes this year, not for the title anyway. But in the most unlikely of circumstances the team appears to have leapt back to respectability, perhaps even occasional front-running competitiveness.

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
Never say never in this game.

Even though there had been Sebastian Vettel to Ferrari whisperings in the wind going back all the way to early 2012 - even to the effect that something or other being signed - it remained something that few took seriously, at least not in the immediate term. He was part of the furniture at Red Bull almost to the point of being synonymous, and for all of the RB10's shortcomings last year the Bulls looked still a far better bet than stepping into the sheer whirlwind at Maranello. But here we are.

So why? Well for starters Seb is one conscious of his place in history and the challenge of aiding famous old Ferrari back to the top, just as his countryman Michael Schumacher did, tempts. More broadly a desire to 'flee the nest' and prove it on your own as it were away from the team that you'd been associated with since your teens, as his former boss Christian Horner suggested, is a natural one. Perhaps too in Seb's peculiar case it's related also at some level to a desire for respect from certain quarters, that which rather eluded him even when he was bagging his repeated world titles.

As for the timing, well that was a little less noble. As was suggested at the time it was confirmed, his reputation could just about cope with one season of being beaten by his team mate as he was in 2014. Had similar happened in 2015 also then it's questionable who would have been prepared to touch him...

Last season was rather the slide from grace for Seb - entering the campaign with his fourth title to his name he spent most of the season being shown the way by his new team mate Daniel Ricciardo. Everyone had their own theory as to why this was, though the most credible one was that it was down to the passing of the exhaust blown diffuser. Not only was Seb as far as just about everyone was concerned the master of driving with that feature, he also spent a lot of 2014 fighting the last war. Observers reckoned that he drove the car like it still had a blown diffuser, being ultra aggressive on the turn-in, but now without throttle blasts keeping the thing stable it served only to chew his tyres up. It was indeed curious that Seb - one who'd built his previous supremacy on his no-stone-unturned and adaptable approach - didn't do more to adapt to the new handling.

But in his new environment there are signs that the old guy of his Red Bull pomp - the ultra-industrious and bright as a button presence - has returned, replacing the rather bewildered figure of last year, one that Horner reckoned was even considering quitting the sport. The ready smile is back, as is his determination to absorb all information and to be a 24/7 presence on the simulator. He's looked pretty tidy out on track too. As you'd imagine he's therefore gathering popularity at Ferrari quickly. And his new boss Maurizio Arrivabene even went, yes, there and described him like a 'carbon copy of Schumi'. Which is a lot of what Seb had in mind. Now he has to go some way demonstrating it where it really matters.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car - #7
Photo: Octane Photography
The recent Autosport front cover summed it up, this is 'Kimi's last chance'.

Whichever way it is stacked up Kimi Raikkonen's return to the Scuderia last year was a desperate disappointment. In a season wherein he was supposed to give Fernando Alonso a challenge that he's never had outside of 2007 and all that, he in fact rarely got into the same postcode. The comparison numbers in whatever form are devastating and indeed for much of the season, especially before the summer break, he tended to not even be close to his stable mate.

And such is the way with F1 reputations some with this new evidence brought to light started to reflect on his efforts before that. Memories of his struggle for much of his first Ferrari spell came flooding back. Then there was his stay at Lotus between times, broadly considered a success but it was also so on the occasions that Romain Grosjean got properly up to speed that Kimi couldn't stay with him. Some even murmured at the time that the Lotuses he piloted were in fact even better cars than he tended to make them look. His devastating pace in the McLaren in the mid-noughties suddenly seemed a very long time ago. Because it was. Was his latest Ferrari experience merely continuation of a long term decline rather than a departure?

We're aware of the line of defence which seeks to mitigate his 2014 struggle, that Kimi craves a responsive front end of the car, and the F14 T had nothing like that. The Finn too - for better or for worse - refuses to alter his driving style to adapt to his machine: 'I have been in F1 quite a few years, I have never changed my driving style and I will never change; it's not the right way to fix problems'.

And this year he may indeed have had that problem fixed. Observers have noticed that this year's Ferrari front end looks to be behaving itself far more, giving both drivers confidence that it'll go where they point it. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Kimi in the car in 2015 testing has looked much more comfortable, as well as is visually more content (within his strict personal gamut of course) out of it too. Thickening the plot, he described the SF15-T as a 'completely different story' compared with last year's set of wheels.

But the flipside of course is that he doesn't now have anywhere to hide; he simply must deliver. It feels like 2015 will answer a lot of questions about Kimi Raikkonen. Perhaps definitively.

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