Can Ferrari make a race of it in Barcelona? That is the question after a pair of free practice sessions in which the red cars looked to have very good pace on the soft tyres and to have unlocked the performance of the Russia and Spain upgrades.
The pace was much faster than 2015, albeit 0.9s of that lap time gain is the fact that they have soft tyres here, which were not available last year, when the medium was the fastest. Kimi Raikkonen, who looks very at home in this year’s car, was three seconds faster than Ferrari’s best in FP2 last year, which is an improvement of two seconds, allowing for the tyres.
There is a faint whiff of optimism at Ferrari, which is positive and negative on a day when chairman and CEO Sergio Marchionne is due to breeze into the F1 paddock to be ‘close to the team’. He piled the pressure on by saying that he expected Ferrari to start winning from Spain onwards and spoke after the mess of Sochi of being very unhappy ‘at seeing Ferrari suffer’, which is always a bit of a worry for the team when they hear that kind of coded language.
It gave rise to rumours in Italy at the start of the week that he is considering replacing team boss Maurizio Arrivabene with technical director James Allison. There will be more of that today when Marchionne speaks.
Asking around it seems that there is currently nothing in these rumours, but now that the genie is out of the bottle, it becomes a narrative that the key players have to respond to. We saw that yesterday with rousing support from the two drivers and a measured response from Arrivabene himself.
“Tension is part of the game,” he said, while emphasising that the current Mercedes set-up is, in his opinion, “the strongest F1 team of the last ten years.”
Vettel and Raikkonen, who owes his position to the lanky Italian’s support, both back him:
“He is the boss,” said Vettel. “And he’s managing this team very well, spending a lot of time with the boys here and at the factory. The rumours are nonsense.”
Raikkonen added: “Arrivabene is the right man, he’s doing an excellent job as the team principal at Ferrari. He’s the best we’ve ever had.”
The Finn added a note of optimism that the next few races should give Ferrari a chance to have a go at Mercedes. It’s already too late for both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships with Raikkonen and Vettel 63 and 67 points respectively behind Rosberg and Ferrari trailing Mercedes by 81 points.
Ferrari has brought upgrades here to add to those in Russia, from which there was still more to unlock. Mercedes would like to keep Ferrari at arm’s length, with upgrades of its own, which would eventually demoralise the Italians, if they could not get closer despite all their efforts.
One thing is clear, despite all the changes and updates, the old characteristics of Mercedes being superior on the harder tyres still holds true. The teams will race on softs at the start, but mediums are the way to go here in the race and the Mercedes is clearly faster on the long runs on mediums. Ferrari may have to try a more aggressive strategy, if its sums add up to allow it to make an extra stop.
In single lap qualifying mode the Ferrari is very fast, but the problem is that at the end, as we all know, Mercedes will turn up the engine to its maximum mode for the decisive runs and gain that extra 3 or 4 tenths that Ferrari doesn’t have.
“Ferrari looks like it is going very well at this circuit,” said the championship leader, Rosberg. “I can’t wait for qualifying to see how fast we really are because because Ferrari looks a threat to me.”