2011 has been a disastrous season for Ferrari in Formula One, with the team achieving just one victory and once again languishing third in the constructor’s championship; 197 points behind runaway leaders Red Bull Racing.
However with a reorganisation of the technical department, the increased commitment of Fernando Alonso and increasing focus on the teams Young Driver Academy; Ferrari are now very much looking towards the future.
The post Schumacher/Brawn/Todt era was always going to be a disappointment for Ferrari, with Domenicali and the Ferrari team themselves appearing to be on a steep learning curve at times. The loss of the 2008 driver’s title was the first sign of chinks in the Ferrari armour, with poor initial reliability and an unclear hierarchy in the driver line-up ultimately handing the crown to Hamilton.
However, it was 2009 where the real problems were identified. New technical regulations resulted in the new design team having to start with a clean sheet of paper for the first time. The result was a disaster, with the team missing many of the loopholes in the new aerodynamic regulations which were taken advantage of by pace setters Brawn GP (led by former Ferrari technical director Ross Brawn).
The team made steady progress through the season thanks to its colossal resources; but poor starts to the 2010 and 2011 seasons reaffirmed the fact that something was fundamentally wrong with the initial designs being produced. Much was talked about the team’s failure to “take risks” as Red Bull had done; and it was largely inevitable that technical director Aldo Costa would lose his position in the team. Former head of track operations, Chris Dyer, was another to lose his job as Ferrari’s track side strategic weaknesses were identified as Alonso lost any chance of a championship victory at the 2010 season ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Improved technical structure
Team principal Stefano Domenicali recently spoke about “laying the groundwork for an unbeatable structure”. This was to be headed up by former McLaren designer Pat Fry, who has been credited as some as being responsible for the famous ‘F-Duct’ design which gave McLaren a season long straight-line speed advantage in 2010. Perhaps it was Fry’s ability to take risks with innovative designs which made him attractive to Domenicali who was aiming to create a cultural change within Ferrari’s design department.
Domenicali stated that it was this re-organisation and re-visioning that had persuaded Fernando Alonso recommit to the team with a contract extension which will see him remain as the teams lead driver until at least 2016.
The lead driver
Kimi Raikkonen had been pursued by Ferrari top brass since his debut in Formula One in 2001. His speed and ultimately ability was not in doubt during his years at McLaren; where only poor reliability from the cars McLaren provided him with prevented Raikkonen from becoming a multiple champion.
It is alleged that Ferrari President Luca Di Montezemolo was soon keen to hire Raikkonen that he effectively forced Michael Schumacher into retirement at the end of 2006. Raikkonen did just enough in his first year at Ferrari in order to achieve what was expected of him by winning the championship. However, it can be argued that it was a lucky title, as the Finn benefitted from the political instability at his old team McLaren caused by friction between its two drivers Alonso and Lewis Hamilton, and mistakes near the end of the season by rookie campaigner Hamilton.
Raikkonen’s title defence in 2008 was a disaster as the Finn struggled to match the pace of his team-mate Massa who took the title fight to Hamilton once more. Suddenly Raikkonen’s alleged $51 million salary (which was supposedly at least four times more than what Massa was being paid) started to look like poor value for money. This wasn’t helped by the Finn’s dislike of interaction with the media and the teams commercial partners, with him famously telling Ferrari investors in Abu Dhabi that there $1.5 billion F1 circuit was “s**t”.
His dislike of social interaction was also having a detrimental impact on the team, who were missing the inspiration leadership which was offered by Schumacher. Domenicali and Di Montezemolo therefore decided to cut their losses, offering Raikkonen a substantial compensation package to end their contract early and giving Fernando Alonso the coveted Ferrari lead role which they felt would be needed in order to get the team back on track.
The Spaniard has subsequently fulfilled this missing piece of the puzzle, guiding Ferrari through a difficult start to 2010 and encouraging the engineers to mount an impressive fight back which very nearly resulted in Alonso taking his third drivers championship. The team’s poor 2011 season can certainly not be blamed on the Spaniard, who is currently 2nd in the championship in what is normally only the third fastest car.
The life threatening head injuries sustained by Felipe Massa during the 2009 Hungarian Grand Prix came as a huge shock for Ferrari as they didn’t have any reserve driver lined up who was adequately prepared to take over at a moments notice. This situation wasn’t helped by the ban on in-season testing which was in place in the sport, meaning that no replacement driver would have time to adapt themselves to a Ferrari chassis which was famously complicated to get into the sweet spot.
This resulted in the establishment of the Ferrari Driver Academy in 2010 with the aim being to train promising young racers in order to become the Ferrari Formula One drivers of the future. The first F1 graduate of this programme was Sergio Perez, who is competing for the Sauber-Ferrari team this season. His results have been promising thus far, with the Mexican gaining an enviable reputation for tyre management during the races. These strong performances have already led to him being linked to Ferrari as Felipe Massa’s replacement for 2013.
Another racer on the fringes of F1 is Frenchman Jules Bianchi who has finished 3rd in the GP2 championship for the past two season. However, he had been expected to win the title at his second attempt, and being heavily beaten by Renault Development Driver Roman Grosjean will not have done his future prospects any good what so ever.
Thinking of the future
With the current technical regulations set to remain largely unchanged for the next two seasons, it is unlikely that Ferrari will be able to take advantage of some unforeseen loop hole that will provide them with the sort of unassailable advantage which they experienced during the Schumacher era. However, this doesn’t mean that they won’t be able to give Red Bull and Vettel a run for their money in 2012 and 2013.
The real impact of this internal restructure will not really be experienced until 2014. The sport is attempting to become more relevant to the developing green car movement, with 65% of the motorists questioned as part of a Money Supermarket survey admitting that rising fuel prices would result in them choosing a more fuel efficient vehicle the next time they are on the look out for a new car. It is hoped that by giving car manufacturers the opportunity to develop innovative green technologies in F1, it could help them gain an advantage over other manufacturers in the development of this new generation of road cars.
In order to achieve this, the sports regulators have introduced new technical regulations for 2014 which will include smaller engines and an increased capacity hybrid energy recovery system (KERS). This will be the acid test as to whether Ferrari’s new technical structure is sufficient to help them become the pace setters once more.