Sunday, 28 February 2016

F1 2016 Season Preview: Ferrari - All eyes on it

It's not the first time this has been pointed out, but how quickly things change in F1. For most of 2014 Ferrari appeared to be descending into the sort of chaos seen in its worst of days. It got the new formula horribly wrong on just about all fronts, only managed a distant fourth in the constructors' standings and for the first time since 1993 there were no wins. Furthermore in response it became a season of the long knives as discarded management and technical bodies piled up, and indeed the team had no fewer than three team principals in the course of the season, surely a record even at Maranello. By the year's end almost unthinkably its star driver Fernando Alonso was gone too.

Photo: Octane Photography
But quickly in 2015, indeed the definitive confirmation was as early as round two, it became clear that the Scuderia somehow and almost in spite of itself had landed on its feet. Throughout the campaign it was best of the rest by the way and even a regular irritant of the imperious Mercedes. Along the way it bagged three wins which was beyond what at the time seemed a highly ambitious target of two set by its new team principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, ex of Marlboro. As I said, things change quickly in F1, and it's in large part because good results on track don't half make all other woes fade to insignificance.

After the flux the pieces settled in something like a better order than what was there before. Arrivabene as it transpired quickly set to work where it mattered, particularly in the team's culture. In 2015's pre-season he said pointedly "when people are under pressure, with everybody trying to cover themselves, this creates a kind of mess into the team." A new way, one in which the time-honoured fear and finger-pointing appeared expunged, was brought in. Then there is the influence of Sergio Marchionne, chairman of FIAT. A man with an astonishing CV and who might be, politely, called a bruiser. Last year at the point of helping himself to the Ferrari chairman role he promised to "kick some ass" and take some risks. That he's done both with the team and with his political muscle flexing on the squad's behalf. Even Ferrari's numbers came in with its driver change, as with a reinvigorated Sebastian Vettel barely a beat was missed.

Many things count in Ferrari's favour. The team continues to be magnificently-resourced and gets by far the most generous financial settlement from FOM. We also have a formula currently that could have been designed for the works teams and for developing the car and power unit in unison; even among these Ferrari has uniquely the power unit developed just down the corridor... Also in James Allison it has the man who in the post-Adrian Newey age is viewed by many as the sport's technical standard bearer. James Allen for one reckons "he's got absolutely everything it takes to be the new Ross Brawn, definitely". The SF15-T in 2015 was a huge step forward - quick, much better handling, gentle on the tyres (a long-held Allison characteristic), more consistent and good in qualifying too, something that successive Ferraris had struggled with for years. Allison also it seems much improved the team's strategy.

And even with what was said at the outset to an extent too the Scuderia was bound to improve from its desperate 2014 - its car was the first from Allison proper plus with the power unit there were obvious gains to make given the team very obviously went down a blind alley first off, prioritising compactness over power and featuring woeful energy recovery. Yet it shouldn't be sniffed at, and in any case Renault's experience shows that starting from far back is no guarantee of immediate improvement. By the year's end many, including Niki Lauda, reckoned there was nearly nothing between the Merc unit and the Ferrari. Allison too called it "the number one reason for the improvement in competitiveness - by a dominant margin".

The new car for 2016 looks like it'll deliver a step forward again, appearing much more sleek, slim and aggressive than the perhaps safety-first SF15-T, while its new all the rage short nose has reportedly eliminated much of the understeer of its predecessor. And the opening Barcelona test consensus is that Ferrari has indeed closed the gap to Mercedes, the main question now is by how much. The more generous estimates had the deficit at two or three tenths a lap for qualifying and the race, though some projections have it still at half a second or more. Then there is reliability, as in contrast to the bullet-proof silver machine Ferrari in the first test had a few niggles. Kimi missed almost an entire morning with one such glitch and even before that a few had noticed the Ferrari having problems, perhaps related to the visibly more scrimping cooling package. By the end of the opening test it had only just over half of the mileage of the Mercedes. It's a help you suspect the W07 hardly needs.

There perhaps with this is a main supplementary question too as to whether this sort of step forward will be enough. Whatver else changed last year this still is Ferrari; its patience, or lack of it, is well known. Arrivabene has set the aims high and identified fighting for the title to the end as this year's target. There seems no short of external expectation either, with even over and above the usual stuff Ferrari gets many eyes are now burning on the team, almost pleadingly, to get with Mercedes and therefore make a fight of things at the front. While for all of the improvement matters for the Scuderia will get harder from here, both to make gains as well as to satisfy expectations. And the reverse side of the new-ness around is that we don't know what the reaction will be in adversity and with pressure applied. But for now at least all at Ferrari are clearly giving themselves the best chance.

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
In a sport not short of absurdities that Sebastian Vettel for a good while never was short of those trying to denigrate him must rank among the most acute. Four world titles and scores of wins at still a relatively young age and all. Just wait until he's not in his Red Bull enclave, they said; without the best car; without a blown floor that suits his handling preferences peculiarly. Well all of this happened in 2015, and Seb can be said to have shown up the criticisms for what they were. Absurd, as I said. He is all that after all.

The famously lucky Seb did benefit from a little of that commodity last year. After a trying and tumultuous 2014 improvement was near enough inevitable at Seb's new Ferrari abode plus any of it would be gratefully received. The embittered end of the Scuderia's relationship with his predecessor Fernando Alonso meant the team would have a similar attitude to whoever emerged as its new lead driver. The car and, certainly, the power unit improved, against many external expectations. But make no mistake, beyond these Seb not for the first time absolutely made his luck.

Bouncing back from his 2014 aberration, where he appeared peeved with the new formula and a struggling car, last season Seb was doing for Ferrari everything he'd done for Red Bull. Almost without a visible join he established himself as the team's pivot, and was an industrious and analytical, yet also smiling and positive, presence that the squad quickly appreciated. In fact if anything having flown the nest from Red Bull Seb's maturity seemed ever greater, developing into one of the sport's most authoritative figures out of the car too. And last but not least behind the wheel he was quick, smart, consistent and largely error-free. Even with the Mercs' persistent advantage Seb could be counted upon to do whatever he could to cling to them and give as little away as possible, and on the three occasions opportunity arose Seb pounced to win decisively.

A lot like his team things will only get harder now for Seb as expectations grow. As a student of history he'll also be aware that at Maranello things can turn sour very quickly, But also like his team Seb has created a very strong base from which to build.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car #7
Photo: Octane Photography
You know the one about lies, damned lies and statistics. Such statistics indicate that Kimi Raikkonen's 2015 campaign was one of solid progress - 150 points, three podium appearances and fourth place in the standings all were vast improvements on his extremely trying return to Ferrari in 2014, when he almost never got with his team mate Fernando Alonso on pace or points.

But that's only the surface; it was in fact a challenge to make the case that Kimi had improved much at all. The deficits to his team mate, this time Sebastian Vettel, were pretty much unaltered; indeed Seb near enough doubled Kimi's points total, and in no way did that misrepresent the way of things between the pair. And in some ways the campaign was worse than the one before for the Finn as in 2014 his defenders could point at the F14T's agricultural ways which particularly chafed against Kimi's delicate, fingertip approach. But in 2015 the handling was in large part rectified and the under-performance lingered. It was tempting to conclude therefore that he simply didn't have the pace anymore.

There were times that we saw Kimi at something like his best - the race in Bahrain and Monza's qualifying for example, as well as in Silverstone's fast sweeps - but they were rare. Towards the season's end he even began to fluff the lines of being a decent back-up man, as his driving got clumsy - colliding twice with Valtteri Bottas and hardly keeping the thing on the road in Austin. Relatively early in the day, before those problems, Ferrari had confirmed Kimi was staying for 2016, but even at the time it was thought a surprise. The team spoke of the importance of stability and of Kimi's previous in the team (he is after all, its last drivers' champion). Also he appears to come with what presumably these days is an important Sebastian Vettel Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But also Kimi may have benefitted from circumstance - there were doubts about each of his identified potential replacements, some financial.

The astonishingly quick Kimi of 2005 is from a long time ago in every sense. One could argue the decline since has been pretty consistent. Word from Barcelona is that the new car's front end is even more to his tastes, and Kimi indeed commented as much, but of course just like last year the flipside of this is even fewer places to hide. This surely is very much his last chance.

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