Thursday 8 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Ferrari - One more push?

Ferrari against most predictions made a championship of it last year. From nowhere it stepped up to be almost with the Mercedes on pace - perhaps actually with it or even ahead by some estimates. And not through chance.

Photo: Octane Photography
As Mark Hughes noted of the Ferrari, "it was the most bold and ingenious design on the grid, with more innovations, more nudging against the limits of the regulations, than any other car. That was the first time this could be said of a Ferrari in more than a decade."

The Ferrari didn't have the peaks of the Merc but it was far more adaptable and usable. Its engine was in the ballpark too, certainly come the race. In that most sincere form of flattery plenty of rivals have in their 2018 machines followed the lead of last year's red car.

With a few cards falling the other way Ferrari could have bagged the drivers' title. Over and above its much mooted mid-to-late season unreliability, we had safety cars appearances going against it in China and Spain - either costing Sebastian Vettel probable wins - as well as Seb's errors in Baku and Singapore letting two more victories go from its grasp.

Were this almost any other team on the grid we would interpret this as a strong base from which to go again for the title this season - one more push... But this is Ferrari. There things always can go either way. And more generally you have to go back a decade for the last time the Scuderia followed up a strong campaign with another one. Indeed in the last two campaigns Ferrari's competitiveness has gone the precise opposite way of pre-launch expectation.

This latest car's launch and showing in testing was appropriately enigmatic. The SF71H was well received in its detail and progression of last season's fruitful concept, and it appeared to start testing strongly both on the stopwatch and visually on track. Then on the penultimate day of the second test Vettel stunned with a lap on the hyper-soft tyre over a second quicker than anyone else. But usual health warnings on headline times apply and on longer runs that day it appeared behind its chief rivals.

The sense developed over testing, before Vettel placed a cat among the pigeons, that the Ferrari is perhaps behind the Mercedes (and Red Bull) but also that it remains close and that it is the happier across different types of corner and tyre compound. Like last year.

And there was a lot good about Ferrari last year. We wondered how that campaign might have turned about without driver and team mistakes. The Scuderia may have given itself an opportunity to show us this time.

Sebastian Vettel - Car #5
Photo: Octane Photography
We used to know what to expect from Sebastian Vettel. If he got the smell of a championship in his nostrils he'd be imperious. For a lot of 2017 it appeared indeed that was what we were getting. But the challenge faltered, and Seb cannot be said to be entirely without culpability. Points were lost with his errors in Baku (egregiously), at the start in Singapore, and then with the title as good as gone he showed more misjudgement in the USA and Mexico.

But still we can get too bogged down with such things, as for the most part in 2017 Seb's performance was as intimated straight from his championship-winning plateau. This was whether he was dominating at the front (Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Brazil), nursing mechanical maladies (Hungary), chasing down foes (Australia, Russia and Austria) or coming through the pack (China, Canada, Azerbaijan and Mexico). And while driver-team relationships at Maranello are notorious for getting fraught Seb's has remained on the level, despite a wobble late in 2016.

Seb at his best is one from the very top drawer. If the Ferrari lives up to most of its promise we can expect more of this in 2018.

Kimi Raikkonen - Car #7
Photo: Octane Photography
Whatever doubts around are gone. In 2017 we received confirmation of what Kimi Raikkonen's role at Ferrari is these days. That of a steady support act, retained mainly due to that he doesn't rock the boat and comes with an all-important Sebastian Vettel Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

It may sound harsh, and on some levels it is. Kimi of course bagged pole at Monaco last year (his first pole for near enough a decade) which always is a feather in the cap. As usual even Seb couldn't live with him in the fast turns such as those at Silverstone. But Kimi it seems these days is unable or unwilling to be sufficiently agricultural for laptime in the slow stuff, curiously something he did just fine in his pace peak in the mid-noughties.

In 2017 it added up to qualifying and race result time deficits to Seb that often defied belief. Word is that if Ferrari protegee Charles Leclerc at Sauber proves this year to be about as good as everyone thinks he is then he'll be in the seat for 2019. So we could be in for a Kimi swansong.

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