Just two races into the season and it is already promising to be one of the most interesting ever. Sebastian Vettel’s win with Ferrari at the recently held Malaysian Grand Prix has shocked the F1 fraternity and has given the fans some hope that it will not be another Mercedes cruise fest like last year. Ferrari coming back to form was something few expected, and there appear to be several reasons which seem to have worked together and helped the team to get competitive again.
Just flash back to the last season and no one, not even Ferrari believed that it could bounce back within the span of a year. Last season, with all the radical rule changes being introduced, it was widely anticipated that Ferrari would finally produce a car which would help the team and its driver Fernando Alonso clinch the elusive world title which they had been chasing for the past few years.
Expectations for 2014 were given a further boost after the signing of Kimi Raikkonen, with the fans anticipating aggressive on track battles between the world champion duo. But as the season got going, all those hopes bit the dust as not only were Ferrari behind Red Bull which they had been for the past few years, but this time around they had further shifted back behind Mercedes and Williams. Red Bull encountered all sorts of problems during the season especially with their engine, but still managed to perform better than Ferrari to take several podiums during the season.
On the other hand, Ferrari proved to be a miserable package all around when we take into account their huge budget and the resources at their disposal which produced only a reliable car and nothing else. They had problems with aerodynamics, power unit, software issues and the overall drivability of the car itself.
The Alonso-Raikkonen duo did not deliver
Alonso, who delivers good results given any kind of car, tried his best to drag the Ferrari to as many podium finishes as possible which in the end amounted to just two. As the end of the season approached, so did Alonso’s patience, and finally, after five gruelling years with the team, he decided to quit for good and sign for Mclaren.
Raikkonen fared even worse than his teammate at the start of the season. It was quite clear that he was not completely comfortable with the car which was against his driving style, which added to the other technical troubles that the car already had. Raikkonen did not secure a single podium finish all year.
By the end of the season, the team was in huge turmoil with radical changes within the team. It was expected that it would require few more seasons before it could get back to being competitive. But with impressive results at the Malaysian Grand Prix, the hopes have surely increased. However, the team has a lot of work still to be done if it has to outmuscle Mercedes, which remains the dominant force even after its defeat in Malaysia.
One thing is abundantly clear: Ferrari’s form is a cause of concern for Mercedes.
Here’s a look at a few reasons behind Ferrari’s improved form:
The arrival of Maurizio Arrivabene
In 2014, Stefano Domenicali was still the Team Principal at Ferrari. He had maintained the best relations he could with the team personnel especially with the drivers. He was the reason for Kimi Raikkonen and James Allison coming back into the team. The ill fated decisions like preferring aerodynamic performance over power unit performance taken under his authority, the fact that the team hadn’t won championships for more than five years and when the team endured its worst season in 20 years, Domenicali accepted responsibility and left the team.
Immediately, Ferrari replaced him with Marco Mattiacci who was scarcely known in the F1 paddock before. He was handling Ferrari’s operations in the USA. Mattiacci on his side, did all he could have done. He made the major decision of letting Alonso leave in favour of Vettel, gave major power relating to designing of the car to James Allison and fired personnel which he felt weren’t good enough. But still it is envisaged that he didn’t have good relations with Bernie Ecclestone which is all the more important as he still remains in control of F1. Also the fact that he didn’t have F1 background before his arrival into the team might have played against him in his sacking from the team.
The charismatic Maurizio Arrivabene who replaced him in November last year, seems to have all the capabilities which his predecessor lacked. He has been closely associated with Ecclestone for a long time owing to his role with F1 sponsor Marlboro, his prior F1 experience due to serving on the F1 Commission. Having regards to his qualities, Ferrari Chairman Sergio Marchionne had said that:
"In Maurizio, I see the qualities of someone who leads by his strong personal example, his professionalism, and the integrity of his decisions - in short by the type of person he is."
Currently, Arrivabene seems to have hit the right notes which have transformed into success in Malaysia, but with 17 races still to go, his abilities to keep the team competitive all season round will be put through their toughest test.
Better overall layout of the car as opposed to last year
Last year, Ferrari felt with the radical rule changes being introduced, it would be the most beneficial if they would concentrate more towards getting aerodynamic gains against making the power unit stronger as they thought this would be where the most emphasis lie in the new hybrid turbo era.
But they misjudged the situation drastically as not only was the car underpowered in terms of power unit, but also lagged behind as an aerodynamic package. Also another major problem that arose was with the ERS, electrical system and engine software which the team found too complex to master completely. Besides these, the cooperation between the aero and power unit departments was found to be lacking, such cooperation is necessary to produce a complete package.
Thus, the blame was not just towards one aspect of car, rather the entire layout of the car itself demanded massive overhauling. Overall the F14T had great reliability, but when it came to power and pace, the car lagged behind its rivals Mercedes by a huge margin and couldn’t fulfill the deficit during the entire season. Stefano Domenicali, the then Team Principal had himself remarked that:
“I don’t think by fixing one problem, you fix the whole performance – so we need to work to have a more efficient car; we need to work to have a better engine; we need to work to exploit better the balance between electric power and traditional engine power. Everywhere!”
Thus, as the 2015 season began, nobody expected Ferrari to make major improvements. Arrivabene had said that the team was targeting two wins in the season and was generally optimistic about their prospects in 2015. But as preseason testing got underway, Ferrari shocked everyone as they continuously remained around top of the timesheets. Come Malaysia, their improved pace finally delivered with the unexpected victory of Vettel and Raikkonen’s fourth place even after being pushed to the back of the field after a puncture. All this definitely bears testament to the fact that Ferrari have definitely found something and should be much more competitive than in 2014.
Radical changes undertaken last year in the form of personnel replacements, arrival of Arrivabene and vesting responsibility of designing the car on James Allison surely seem to have worked the team’s way. Last year, the team had been better when it came to qualifying than race. This was majorly due to lack of adequate extraction of energy from the turbo which basically didn’t hinder one lap pace, but the deficit became more pronounced during the stint required in a race.
This year, the design of the engine has been structured in such a manner so as to evenly balance both qualifying and race performance. Also, aerodynamic gains were also received due to packaging the rear much tightly than last year. All the decisions taken seem to have paid off as the car is much better both in regards to chassis, power unit and especially tyre management which helped the team in Malaysia to pit just twice as opposed to Mercedes who had to pit thrice.
The car is definitely a huge improvement upon last year and should remain competitive throughout the season and even challenge Mercedes on tracks similar to Malaysia which demand higher tyre management skills.
Greater control provided to James Allison towards designing of the car
James Allison has been majorly involved with championship winning teams for the most part of his career in F1. He was head of aerodynamics at the Benetton F1 team during their championship winning year in 1995, then from 2000 he remained with Ferrari for five years during their unprecedented championship winning years.
Allison was also deputy technical director at Renault F1 in 2005 and 2006, wherein they achieved championship success with Fernando Alonso and then most recently he served as technical director at the Lotus team which achieved great results in 2012 and 2013.
Allison arrived at Ferrari in 2013 as Chassis Technical Director, but joined the team too late to have much influence towards designing of the car. But due to the massive disappointments in 2014, the team underwent major personnel overhaul, after which Allison was vested with greater responsibility of putting together a better package. Given greater control towards designing the car, Allison has surely delivered as the new Ferrari is much quicker and better at tyre management than last year and it also appears to be made on the lines of Lotus of 2012 and 2013 which had similar characteristics.
Allison has surely got rid of the complex layout of the car last year which had made it even more difficult to make changes to the car, in favour of a much better layout which along with better pace has also made the car better at tyre management. His experience and competence has surely helped in fast pacing the development of the car and should bring Ferrari back on track to be championship contenders in the near future.
Radical changes in personnel structure
Besides the arrival of Arrivabene and Vettel, there have been radical changes in the personnel structure within the team. With Ferrari enduring one of the worst seasons in its history in the sport, a major overhaul was put in place in which numerous key personnel had to leave the team.
The major changes witnessed were in the management structure of the team with Luca di Montezemolo chairman and president of the team for more than 20 years departing from his role which was taken over by Fiat-Chrysler president Sergio Marchionne. Stefano Domenciali removed as team principal of the team in April last year to be replaced by Marco Mattiacci who himself later had to leave in favor of Arrivabene who remains team principal since November last year.
Other pivotal departures from the team included engineering director Pat Fry, head of engine team Luca Marmorini and chief designer Nicholas Tombazis. They were replaced by Jock Clear, Mattia Binotto and Simone Resta respectively. Resta, in her role will be mentored by Rory Byrne who has rejoined the team. Besides them, other key personnel have also been recruited from other teams like Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull
All these changes seem to have brought in a breath of fresh air within the team which had for the past few years struggled to put together a competitive package.
Ferrari’s win in Malaysia was helped by the strategic failures on the part of Mercedes and the deployment of safety car early in the race which played in Ferrari’s hands. However, it was quite clear that Ferrari has indeed found pace during the winter and can now be regarded as best of the rest after comprehensively beating Williams in the last race.
Ferrari should remain a threat to Mercedes all through the season. If they can further increase the pace of their development, then they might even succeed in toppling Mercedes; if not this year, then perhaps next year.