Ferrari is in the midst of its worst Formula One season in recent memory.
A couple of seasons removed from an F1 championship it let slip through its fingers in 2018, Ferrari now looks like an ordinary midfield team. The tweaked post-coronavirus F1 rules for the next few years also limit the prospect of it being back at the front until 2022 at the earliest.
Tracing Ferrari’s dramatic fall since 2019, it’s clear to see the team cycle through the five stages of grief at breakneck speed.
Ferrari’s engine came under scrutiny in 2019 as it showed impressive straight-line speed. The car was especially competitive on Saturdays and scored nine pole positions, including six in a row between Belgium and Mexico.
Although rivals did not publicly state their suspicions, the inference was there on a number of occasions. Team boss Mattia Binotto repeatedly insisted the team had not done anything wrong.
Binotto was still insisting at the end of the season that any illegality would have been discovered “at the very first check”, with the team repeating throughout the year that its car had undergone numerous FIA tests.
While rivals suggested Ferrari had contravened the rules, the Italian team said its power advantage and low-drag aerodynamic concept was the key to its impressive top speed.
Ferrari CEO Louis Camilleri strenuously denied the accusations, saying a company of Ferrari’s stature would never cheat to get ahead.
“Ferrari is a public company,” he said. “It’s known worldwide. Integrity and compliance is key. I think people need to factor that in when they try to look at these allegations.”
After Ferrari claimed those six pole positions in a row, something strange happened at the U.S. Grand Prix as its imperious straight-line speed seemed to be curbed. The loss of performance appeared to be linked to an FIA technical directive issued ahead of the race weekend outlawing a novel way of increasing fuel flow in the engine. Another technical directive around the burning of oil for performance gains followed ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix.
To its rivals, this was a slam dunk and sure proof Ferrari’s engine had been running illegally. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen could not resist the opportunity to stir the pot in Austin.
When asked about Ferrari’s drop in performance at the Circuit of the Americas, he replied: “That’s what happens when you stop cheating, of course. But yeah, [the FIA] had a good look at it. So now we have to keep a close eye on it, of course.”
Ferrari was furious at the suggestion that it had cheated and felt rivals were simply jealous it had produced a better engine.
Shortly after Verstappen’s comments, Charles Leclerc hit back at his rival.
“I think it is a joke, to be completely honest,” he said in response. “He has no clue. He is not in the team.
“We know exactly what we are doing. I don’t know why he is speaking. He doesn’t know anything about us.”
Clearly, while Ferrari was strenuously denying wrongdoing in public, in private it was discussing the issue with racing’s governing body, the FIA.
All of Ferrari’s angry denials looked a little misguided at the start of this year, when the FIA picked the moments after the conclusion of preseason testing to announce it had reached a private settlement with the team over the issue. The FIA released no details about the findings of its investigation into the 2019 engine, something that prompted outrage.
Seven of F1’s 10 teams — in effect, all of those without any ties to Ferrari — threatened legal action and accused the FIA of lacking transparency and integrity. The abrupt cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix due to the coronavirus seemed to stop the issue from escalating into a bigger row, but the saga left a bitter taste.
Ferrari and the FIA insisted there had been no foul play, although it begs the question why an investigation into an engine deemed legal would need to remain confidential. Binotto has said this was to protect his team’s privacy.
“I think that the answer is straightforward,” he said. “First, there was no clear breach of regulations, otherwise we would have been disqualified.
“The reason we don’t want to open is simple because whatever we need to explain [is] our intellectual property to our project, to our power unit, and I think no one in the paddock would be happy to release information on their design and their project.
“I think it’s IP, it’s confidentiality, it’s intellectual property protection, and that’s the reason we’re not keen to do it.”
What has followed for Ferrari has been a fairly awful campaign performance-wise. Save for two Leclerc podiums in Austria and Great Britain, there’s been little for Ferrari to get excited about.
It came into the season having unceremoniously binned Sebastian Vettel — the four-time world champion was told via a phone call with Binotto that he would not stay at the team into 2021.
On announcing his replacement, Carlos Sainz, Binotto gave a telling quote: “We’ve embarked on a new cycle with the aim of getting back to the top in Formula One. It will be a long journey, not without its difficulties, especially given the current financial and regulatory situation, which is undergoing a sudden change and will require this challenge to be tackled in a different way to the recent past.”
It would not be until racing actually started that it became clear Binotto wasn’t being humble for the sake of it. Ferrari has been nowhere near the front on pure performance and has often had to rely on Leclerc’s heroics to drag the car into positions it would not otherwise have been in. It seemed whatever had been in that confidential agreement had left Ferrari significantly down on power compared with 2019.
Vettel finishing seventh in Spain was cause for celebration, showing just how far he and Ferrari have fallen this year. Beneath the surface, it’s clear there is discord, with Vettel’s frustrated radio messages in Hungary and Spain hinting at a frustration with the team’s strategy and pit-wall operations.
Even Leclerc, the man Ferrari has pinned its future hopes and dreams to, has seemed baffled and at a loss to explain the car’s lack of pace at some events this year. Whatever your thoughts are on Ferrari, it is difficult to stomach such an iconic team looking as if it is simply there to make up the numbers.
Almost as remarkable as Ferrari’s fall from grace is how quickly most have adjusted to it and accepted it as the new normal in the pecking order. The Belgian Grand Prix showed Ferrari is down on engine power and has an inefficient aerodynamic package, two things that will be difficult to simply erase in the year and a half remaining until the rule change in 2022.
It also seems most of its rivals have accepted the idea that Ferrari was bending the rules last year, even if that verdict was not in the confidential agreement.
Red Bull’s Christian Horner said the saga left a bitter taste, given that Ferrari used that contentious engine to beat Red Bull to second in the championship, a difference in position that cost Red Bull $10 million in prize money. Add in that Ferrari’s annual bonus, collected every year just for showing up, was a reported $73 million in 2019, and it’s not difficult to understand why rivals would be so frustrated at the Italian team appearing to get preferential treatment from the sport’s governing body.
Horner said: “Obviously you can draw your own conclusions from Ferrari’s current performance, but, yeah, there are races that we should have won last year, arguably, if they had run with an engine that seems to be quite different to what performance that they had last year.”
Toto Wolff, who has remained fairly indignant about the whole affair, took a thinly veiled swipe at Binotto ahead of the Belgian Grand Prix.
“It’s wrong to say ‘Ferrari’s priorities’ because that drags Ferrari and everybody at Ferrari into this,” he said. “It’s maybe the decisions that have been made within the team from certain members of the team.”