Ferrari will be one of the teams that cannot wait to see the back of 2016. It was a poor season for the sport’s longest running team.
Chairman Sergio Marchionne sent them on their way with messages like, “I expect us to win”, a line which he threw into the mix just before the Spanish Grand Prix.
At that stage, Ferrari had scored just 76 points from the first four races, compared to Mercedes’ 157, and had achieved a best finish of second for Kimi Raikkonen in Bahrain and Sebastian Vettel in China.
Ferrari had been in a position to win the season opening race in Australia but made the wrong call on tyres during the red flag period caused by Fernando Alonso’s enormous crash with Esteban Gutierrez.
Ironically, Spain did offer the Scuderia its best chance of a win, thanks to the two Mercedes drivers taking each other out on the opening lap. Only Red Bull stood in its way, but they got the upper hand thanks to a better job in qualifying by their two drivers.
The Ferrari was the faster car on race day, but Ferrari didn’t put enough pressure on Red Bull strategically, especially when Red Bull unexpectedly switched Ricciardo onto a three stop strategy, when he had been pacing himself for a two-stop.
Ferrari lacked confidence; especially with Marchionne dropping in on race day, after they had underperformed in qualifying. The team needed to respond to the pressure from the Chairman by being bold, but they looked more like they wanted to avoid taking a risk that might backfire in front of the boss.
And so the season began to unravel. Disagreements behind the scenes between Marchionne and the technical director James Allison led to the Englishman’s departure, replaced by Mattia Binotto, who had been head of engines. Marchionne spoke of reshaping Ferrari around Italian engineers, moving away from a reliance on foreign ‘mercenaries’.
The impact of Allison’s departure was huge and although the team coped admirably in continuing to develop the car, inevitably it fell behind a fast improving Red Bull and further adrift of Mercedes. Much of the failure to achieve results in 2016 was pinned on the operational and strategy side of the team and it is true that they had a number of ‘off days’. It was a tough year for Inaki Rueda, (above right) the strategist and a close ally of Allison’s from their Lotus days.
But the fact was that the car just wasn’t fast enough. Ferrari’s abject qualifying record speaks for itself; the team has scored only one pole position in the last four years and failed to qualify on the front row of the grid for any of the 21 Grands Prix this season.
You cannot hope to win anything in F1 if the fundamental pillar of competitiveness in qualifying is not there.
The SF16-H chassis was a good step forward from the 2015 model, with many aerodynamic upgrades, including a short nose to improve airflow under the car to the floor, where so much of the downforce of an F1 car is generated. But the car’s weakness was that it operated in too narrow a window of temperature.
To get the tyres working perfectly was a struggle if the track temperature was too hot or too cold and that pretty much defined their season.
More worrying was the decline of Vettel, who began the year with a string of podiums, but then after the European Grand Prix in June, scored only one further podium in 12 races and began to look as though he was reliving Fernando Alonso’s nightmare.
However Vettel ended the season with a strong podium in Abu Dhabi. He will be a free agent at the end of 2017 and with Nico Rosberg’s shock decision to depart Mercedes and Fernando Alonso’s contract up in December at McLaren, Vettel could be a key player in the driver market next summer, if he decides to abandon the Ferrari project.
He makes the right noises about the future, but one wonders whether he able to move on after he was slapped down by team principal Maurizio Arrivabene in Suzuka for trying to lead the team outside the cockpit, or has that made up his mind to change horses?
If there was a positive it was that Kimi Raikkonen rediscovered his touch, after a couple of seasons of anonymity, which led most observers to question why he was being retained.
The switch from pullrod to pushrod front suspension gave Raikkonen the feel for the front end of the car that is indispensable to his cornering style and he thrived; outqualifying Sebastian Vettel 11-10 across the season, including the last four races, which no-one would have predicted at the start of the season.
Next year, with the significant change of regulations, offers Ferrari hope that it can challenge for wins and the title. But the opposition is very strong, especially from Mercedes and Red Bull and one suspects that Ferrari may be looking over their shoulder at McLaren Honda, rather than ahead at the benchmark teams.
But let’s hope not. A strong Ferrari is very important to F1.
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