Sunday, 5 March 2017

F1 2017 Season Preview: Ferrari - Under promise and over deliver

Ferrari might actually be learning. Twelve months ago much bombast emanated from the Scuderia. Its abrasive president Sergio Marchionne spoke of championships, but the car was a desperate disappointment and the team unravelled. This year, in its early days the exact opposite is happening it seems, in both senses.

Photo: Octane Photography
The team appears to have embodied the Italian phrase on their caps, translating as that one should keep their feet on the ground and their head down. On Marchionne's orders barely a peep has been heard from Maranello this winter, and whaddayaknow, the Ferrari machine the team's come up with looks a good one. "I think we learned our lessons from the past years" noted Kimi Raikkonen in Barcelona testing, not for nothing.

Marchionne learned at last it seemed that he should pour oil on troubled waters. The team resisted any temptation to head hunt after its hollowing out of its technical team last year, and instead backed the people it had (with Rory Byrne brought out of hibernation). And the launched car appeared purposeful, with interesting innovation most notably in its sidepod shape but also in the bargeboards and the front of the floor. There's solid talk too of a bold new piston design.

Most importantly the red car looked superb on track in testing, on all tyre compounds and all programmes seemingly. The car could be seen going precisely where the drivers wanted and almost never got out of line even on full throttle.

"The Ferrari simply looked like the best car out there" stated an observing Gary Anderson. "Mario Andretti used to say that the ground-effect Lotus 79 he won the 1978 world championship in was painted to the road, and that's exactly what the Ferrari looked like."

It translated to lap times too as Sebastian Vettel's fastest mark was just a quarter of a second off Valtteri Bottas's table-topping pace and was done on soft rubber rather than the Mercedes's ultra-soft.

Of course, there are some caveats. Ferrari usually runs lower fuel than Mercedes in testing, plus it's thought the silver squad hasn't been running its engines on full chat. In previous years the major part of Ferrari's deficit lay in qualifying that rather than in general running. While false dawns are far from unheard of in Maranello; in the opening test a year ago indeed Ferrari was fastest on three of the four days.

And Vettel was suitably cautious in his words about the SF70H: "By the looks of it the car is working, we don't have any major issues. In terms of performance, still too early to tell but by the looks of it we still need to find a decent chunk, so there's a lot of work ahead."

But at the very least we can say that Ferrari has improved, which is just as well as the fallout of another disappointing season would likely have us hiding behind sofas. And McLaren boss Eric Boullier probably got closest of all: "The Ferrari is surprising and people were not expecting Ferrari to be matching Mercedes's lap times."

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
It's easy to forget that without rather glaring pit wall errors Sebastian Vettel could have had three race wins from the first half of the 2016 F1 season. With that, even with what came next, our views of his campaign would be very different. But rather than the anticipated championship charge he became just the latest to discover the tendency for hopes down Maranello way to be dashed. With it any sense of his charmed existence ended abruptly. And for Seb the transition seemed a painful one.

Increasingly so as the year progressed. His driving got a little scrappy, particularly in the opening corners of races, some of his personal behaviour got tetchy, and oddly too he appeared to lose his qualifying talisman with his team mate Kimi Raikkonen actually ending up ahead on the quali count. It all left some to wonder, with minds on 2014 as well, that while Seb gets the absolute maximum out of a good situation perhaps in difficult situations he doesn't keep up his own end of the bargain. Then a rift with his immediate boss Maurizio Arrivabene got public, with the latter stating his driver should stick to the driving instead on sticking his nose into team running. For someone like Seb - one who among other things lauds Michael Schumacher - it could have been designed to wound. Perhaps it was.

But we shouldn't get too excited on all of this. Vettel remains absolutely one of the best things about Ferrari, and he showed it plenty even in his difficult campaign just passed. And if Ferrari is indeed set for a bounce back this year then you can bet rather a lot on Vettel doing the same.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car #7
Photo: Octane Photography
F1 can be quite the mystery. Most were nonplussed - some were cynical - when in Silverstone last July Ferrari confirmed Kimi Raikkonen's retention for this campaign. Yet it was only in the rounds after that Kimi's performances demonstrated that the Scuderia was onto something.

As the season went on he looked more and more a man transformed. He indeed headed stable mate Sebastian Vettel in the points standings late in the season, and might have stayed there had he not got the rough end of the stick a few times. He even managed to show up better in qualifying, his bugbear of recent seasons, and started ahead of Seb in the final five rounds. This helped him actually top that match-up for the year.

With political whirlwind all around him particularly in the year's latter part few are better equipped to let all debris bounce off than the bullet proof Finn. But it wasn't all that; it also owed plenty to engineering changes mid-season and Kimi at last getting a Ferrari machine more suited to his handling taste.

Which brings us to a potential bottom line. For years we were told that Raikkonen needed a responsive car to do full justice to his talent. Testing thus far suggests Ferrari this time is providing precisely that. Should we do the math?

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