Ferrari have never left a race without creating a little bit of drama. Essere Ferrari. Much like Austria, the French GP seemed like an easy win for Ferrari, but unlike Austria, their loss of position was not due to the car’s reliability, but their driver’s. What this means is that Red Bull have been able to capitalise on Ferrari’s mistakes and catapult their championship standings past the Scuderia without really having to do much else but show up. So has the French GP set the stage for the rest of Ferrari’s season? Meaning, will they continue down their downward spiral or will/can they begin a road to recovery?
Why Ferrari Lost The French GP
Quite simply, Ferrari lost because of driver error, Charles Leclerc admitted as much. In what was a refreshing response to the incident, Leclerc said that he thought it was “just a mistake.” While in the lead, Leclerc lost control of the car and headed into a barrier while he wasn’t under any real pressure from Max Verstappen.
Explaining himself, Charles said he “tried to take too much around the outside, [and] put a wheel probably somewhere dirty.” He added that the French GP was “a very difficult weekend for me, I struggled a lot with the balance of the car.”
Ultimately, in a moment of incredible frankness, Charles said that if he “keeps doing mistakes like this” then he “deserve[s] not to win the championship.”
That is the main take away from this – Ferrari need to make changes in order to prevent as many mistakes as possible. This applies to both the drivers and the team at large. It’s the entire team’s mistakes, as well as their reliability that have hampered their championship chances.
Former F1 World Championship, Nico Rosberg (who beat Lewis Hamilton in 2016 using the same machinery don’t you know), was quick to criticise Ferrari for their strategy choices as it pertained to Carlos Sainz who had started from P19 and had found himself up in P3 during the closing stages of the race.
Sainz was in a battle with Sergio Perez for P3 and the Ferrari pit wall had called Sainz to pit right in the middle of it. As Rosberg put it, “his whole team wasn’t watching,” instead “they had their heads down doing their calculations about pit-stop times.”
Rosberg brings up the age-old question: Are Ferrari terrible strategists?
Questionable Strategies and Ferrari
If we just look at the French GP and the situation they had with Carlos, we see a great example of the questionable strategy choices Ferrari have made throughout the season.
To continue with Rosberg, “Carlos is P3 and comfortably he would have been able to stay there, the tyres would have been fine until the end, and he even had the chance to still get Lewis for P2. Then they bring him in with no chance to go beyond P5 where he ended up.”
“What on earth is going on there?” he added. “Terrible judgement there and I can’t explain it.”
But is this just a knee-jerk response? Carlos Sainz had originally believed the same thing as Nico, that while he couldn’t have won, “I think with a perfect race we could have made it [on the podium].” But it wasn’t a perfect race.
Sainz had thought during the race that he might be able to go to the end of the race without having to stop whilst also increasing the gap between himself and Perez by +5s (a necessary measure thanks to a penalty). As Carlos explained his thinking at the time,
That thinking, according to Ferrari, was impossible. Mattia Binotto, Ferrari team principal, explained, “At the time he was shot on [tyre] life, so it would have been really risky to go to the end. We don’t think he would have had the pace still to open the gap to five seconds because he had a five-second penalty at the time.”
Carlos echoed these statements after the race, “At that stage, our numbers said that [it was] impossible to make it to the end, plus the five-second penalty you risk losing position to Fernando or whatever. So the team took it to play it safe… in the moment maybe my feeling was different but until [now] I don’t see the numbers and everything is impossible for me.”
“What on earth is going on here?” This keeps replaying in our minds because if Ferrari had known that the tyres weren’t going to last until the end, they should have pitted Sainz earlier and served the penalty to give him as many laps as possible to gain as many positions as possible. Instead, they hesitated in their decision making.
You don’t have to be Sun Tzu to know that Ferrari made some questionable strategic calls. They could have also put Carlos on hard compound tyres instead of the medium and removed the need to pit at all. Granted, Sainz might have lost the crazy amounts of pace he was extracting from the car, but the rest of the grid was on the hard tyres as well so the difference might have been negligible. We saw how quick Carlos’ upgraded Ferrari is in qualifying.
Out of the two Ferraris, this is the first weekend Carlos looked quicker than his teammate. Whether that’s due to the cars upgrades or his renewed confidence after his win at Silverstone it doesn’t matter, because the pace speaks for itself.
But Ferrari decided to play it safe and that might have been for the best.
What Should Ferrari Do?
When Ferrari have been on top this season, they’ve been untouchable. The problem is that they so rarely seem in control. This has been due to reliability issues with both the car and the drivers.
Despite all the bad luck heaped onto Carlos Sainz, he isn’t completely blameless. Charles is more consistent than his teammate, but the car has failed him on more than one occasion. France was simply Charles fault, and he has admitted that his mistakes might cost him the championship.
So what do Ferrari do?
For now, it seems that Ferrari are looking to play it safe and just get those cars over the finish line. They tried that with Carlos Sainz in France, with a hard tyre stint at the start of the race and just consistent pace to climb up the grid – no unnecessary risks, the car is faster than everyone else’s on the grid, just take your time and get it up there. It worked. Considering all the speculation, Sainz achieved good points and fastest lap.
Binotto understands this. While admitting that the race “didn’t go to plan,” he believes Ferrari has “good performance, tyre management, tyre degradation.”
“I think we have a bit of edge of Red Bull,” he added, “because after 15 laps Charles was going well and was gaining a couple of tenths, three tenths per lap on Max that he had to stop very early and would have extended the stint.”
He isn’t wrong either. Reliability issues aside, the recent Ferrari package is typically faster than the Red Bull’s. Straight line speed is where the Red Bull excels, no doubt, but as we saw in France, that still wasn’t enough for Max to overtake Charles. The Ferrari has better tyre degradation and better one-lap pace.
Max Verstappen agrees with this too and believes the championship isn’t over. “We are still behind over one lap,” said Verstappen. While he may be simply humble, Verstappen isn’t confident about the upcoming race in Hungary.
“I don’t expect Hungary to be particularly our best track because I do think we are lacking a bit of downforce compared to Ferrari,” said Verstappen. “And that’s what you need to run there. And so, we’ll face a few tough weekends as well.”
It isn’t all doom and gloom, but Ferrari can swing this championship back in their favour if they can get their reliability issues solved, and their drivers stop making mistakes. They need to play it safe, there is no more room for drama.
Carlos believes that Ferrari have been getting a bad rap for their strategic decisions. “I think the team is doing a very good job on strategy this year; I still believe at Ferrari we get super-criticised for things that other teams might be going through also in the pit stop windows,” he said.
It’s easy to feel that sentiment, but Ferrari have created a championship winning car and are contesting the title. You don’t get to do that without some level of competence. If you look at their rivals last year, McLaren, the state of the teams couldn’t be more different. McLaren promised a championship car, they haven’t even come close to delivering this year. Their drivers don’t play as nicely together as Ferrari’s and Daniel Ricciardo has been underperforming since he joined the team with few signs of improvement (unlike Carlos Sainz). Ferrari have problems, but they are not out of this championship… Not yet anyway.
The French GP has highlighted what Ferrari need to work on. Car reliability seems to have been solved for now as neither car seemed close to blowing up (a low bar, but a bar nonetheless), both drivers are performing well with Carlos improving greatly since the beginning of the season. What they need is consistency and they are moving towards that, now it is a matter of fine-tuning their strategy. We will see in Hungary if they have learnt anything because that is the race where the future of Ferrari in this championship will be decided.
This has set the stage for Ferrari’s recovery or their downfall, it’s up to the team now.
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