I must admit I haven’t been a Ferrari fan since the days when Berger and Alesi were teamed up at the Scuderia, yet despite my dislike for some of their drivers and underhand tactics in their era of dominance I can’t help but somewhere deep down still have a weak spot for the scarlet F1 cars. As much as I’d like to deny it, Ferrari’s woes are troubling me this year, and I don’t see a very bright future for them if they continue along the path they have chosen.
Ferrari left Abu Dhabi in a state of shock. Despite not having the pace of the Red Bull, with some phenomenal drives by Alonso and reliability issues as well as driver errors at Red Bull they had the WDC title for the taking coming into the final Grand Prix. A strategic blunder saw young Vettel snatch the crown from Alonso’s head, and to me it seems the team are still reeling from that knockout blow. It is interesting that a risk averse strategy in Abu Dhabi which cost them the title – reacting to Webber’s early stop and seemingly forgetting about Vettel and the fact several cars had already done their mandatory stop after the lap 1 safety car incident – has now caused them to be even more risk averse.
During the winter break there was much talk coming out of Ferrari that they were going to be aggressive for 2011, yet when the car was unveiled and took to the track in preseason testing the Ferrari F150th Italia turned out to be one of the most conservative cars on the grid (read my previous post on car development philosophies in 2011 here for more insight). Regardless of the major disappointment of Yas Marina, it was crucial to see how Ferrari would deal with it. Sadly, in my opnion they took a completely wrong turn when trying to put it behind them. The age old blame culture at Ferrari reared its ugly head once more and race engineer Chris Dyer was made the fall guy. Somehow by firing him they seemed to believe it could erase that trauma and start afresh for 2011. In reality, firing Chris Dyer has laid the seeds for the current woes of the team.
Luca Di Montezemelo has been very prominent in the press as it became clear that the Ferrari is not as competitive as they should be, fighting for a place as 3rd best car on the grid with the likes of Renault and Mercedes while they should be taking the fight to Red Bull and Mclaren. The paradox is that while leading people like Di Montezemelo, Domenicali and Alonso are calling for bold strategies and innovations, the immense pressure heaped on the team by Di Montezemelo and the blame culture he so seems to cherish has actually produced the opposite result. Ferrari is now more risk averse than ever. It started with an unimaginative car design for 2011, and is really shining through in their race strategies for 2011. It all starts in qualifying, where Ferrari have invariably went out on the soft compound in Q1 (except at Monaco), while in any case Alonso would have almost certainly cleared Q1 on the hards. Yet the fear of failure drove the scuderia to sacrifice that crucial set of fresh options while their rivals did not. This is compounded by the fact that the Ferrari’s struggle for pace on the harder tire compared to the rivals, so sacrificing a set of softs forces them come race day to run longer on the less suited hard compound.
When it comes to pitstops, Spain was an exceptionally clear example that instead of running their own strategy, Ferrari is all out focused to react to other people’s strategies. They were even so hellbent on covering Mark Webber that Red Bull started suspecting Ferrari managed to ‘read’ when they would pit Webber (Helmut Marko even accused them of spying by listening in on Red Bull’s team radio but as always Marko’s words should not be taken too seriously). Of course your strategy is always in some sort dictated by what the guys around you are doing, but we have yet to see a Ferrari strategy trying to break the mold. They do not split strategies between their drivers like Red Bull and Mclaren have done, they always take the safest approach when it comes to pitwall decisions. To me this seems very much like a team paralyzed by the risk of failure. Any bold pit decision can give you glory or bring you ruin, yet if you never try glory will be that much harder to attain. This especially true for Ferrari as they don’t have the outright pace to challenge Red Bull or Mclaren, so they will need clever and bold strategy even more to come out on top. In a way one cannot blame Domenicali and his race engineers for their lack of boldness, as the trigger happy management will not blink to find another scapegoat should things go awry. In these blame cultures everyone starts becoming afraid of their own shadow, afraid to take risks, guess, throw a hail mary. This is not how World Championships are won, and Ferrari of all teams should now this. This conservatism is not a winning, but a runner up mentality.
Technical director Aldo Costa was the next scapegoat when it turned out the F150th did not have the pace to compete at the front. Ferrari’s desperation shines through in the unsuccessful attempts to lure in Adrian Newey from Red Bull last year. Just today it was rumored Ferrari attracted Nick Jeffries, an aerodynamicist from Force India to strengthen that department. With all due respect to Jefferies and his work, Force India is not exactly renowned for their aero package. Other rumors suggest Ferrari are trying to recover John Iley from Mclaren after he left the scuderia to join the Woking based team in 2009. There is no confidence in their own people’s ability, and the team itself loses confidence with every day the blame culture instigated by Di Montezemelo persists. While perhaps Ferrari does not have F1’s most talented designers and engineers, this knee jerk reaction to start firing and hiring has sabotaged any chances for these people to come through, and Ferrari has forced itself on the market. Even if Ferrari got Adrian Newey but put him in the straightjacket of Maranello politics I doubt even the wizzard could get them to the top. With always the same names and faces appearing in F1 technical circles, they are not exactly spoiled for choice as many of these people are under contract with other teams for longer periods, so either Ferrari will have to pay up to lure big names away from their competitors, pick up tainted figures out of the sport these days or take gambles on young designers without much of a proven track record. The long term signing of Alonso untill 2016 showes a team intent on thinking of the long term, yet aside from this signing, nothing else indicates a strong long term strategy for Ferrari is in the cards although Ferrari does seem increasingly active trying to recruit new engineers. Di Montezemelo is eying his chance in politics so the long term leadership is at doubt. While I’d definitely argue it is a good thing for Ferrari if he does leave for politics, there is no guarantee that his successor will fundamentally change the team culture. In a way we can see the Schumacher era as an anomaly in Ferrari’s prevailing culture. Long and short term strategy was driven by Ross Brawn, Rory Byrne, Jean Todt and of course Schumacher himself who, despite their immense loyalty, completely changed how Ferrari worked and strategized. It seems that now the golden boys have been gone for a few years, Ferrari is slowly dropping down to its pre-Schumacher era level of being a team with great history, support and financial means, but sadly never quite able to deliver.
Firing people does nothing unless you hire the right people to replace them and have a clear long term strategy in mind. It will also not help you move forward if the people coming in are under constant threat of being sacrificed for any errors that result from bold moves. Instead of working things out as a team and see how they can improve, they look for a scapegoat to pin the blame on and then think by firing him they have solved the problem while in reality they have only exacerbated it. This culture of lookin for blame makes people very risk averse, so don’t expect bold race strategies or car designs from Ferrari if they keep this up. They have the resources to copy the other teams innovations which is why in recent years they start out crap and get more competitive as the season progresses, but Ferrari has not been an innovator for quite some time now and the way they are going they won’t be any time soon. There will be successes this year as the car is obviously not a complete dog and Ferrari does have massive development resources to copy and catch up to the others.
There are a few things that speak in Ferrari’s favor. With Alonso they have a world class driver that will always extract the maximum from the car he is given, and his experience should be invaluable when it comes to developing a new car and driving race strategy. Alonso is facing the enormous task of effectively becoming the team’s next Schumacher, yet he does not have the tools available which the German did. Domenicali is no Jean Todt, Aldo Costa and whoever will replace him is no Ross Brawn or Rory Byrne. Alonso will not only have to lead the team on track with his brilliant performances, he will also have to lead the team in the factory. He needs to form another golden triangle. While it never hampered Ferrari in the Schumacher era, the days of having a mallable 2nd driver seem over when we have a much more competitive grid in 2011. Felipe Massa needs to up his game now or be released at the end of the season. To fight for that all important constructors championship you need someone that can also bring home the bacon consistently, and the way Massa has been outscored by Alonso is quite pitiful indeed. It might be counter to my statement that Ferrari should end the blame culture, but if a driver is so consistently underperforming it also hurts the team and he should be let go.
Some might point at Alonso’s second place in Monaco to say things are not all that bad, but Monaco is an anomaly on the F1 calendar. A car does not magically improve that much so as to come from being lapped one week moves up to contending for a win the next. Barcelona as the prime testing grounds and its emphasis on aero efficiency is the real benchmark track for F1 cars, and the Ferrari was shockingly bad on race pace. Even in quali, Alonso needed a perfect lap to snatch a disappointing p4 – at least I’d be hella disappointed if I drove the lap of a lifetime and see it only netted me p4. We can definitely attribute that one to Alonso. Another fact helping the Ferrari in Monaco is that the soft-supersoft combo to a certain degree masks the deficiencies of the car as with these tires there is much more mechanical grip available to them. Nonetheless Ferrari will need to find a way around running on the hard tires on which they perform so poorly, as they will return at Silverstone.
Perhaps bringing in Pat Symonds for 2012 after his forced hiatus following the Singapore scandal would be a move in the right direction. After all, Alonso and Symonds were a formidable team during Alonso’s World Championship years. Domenicali is a clever man and should not be the next in line to take the fall, but he needs to throw the fear off his back and go bold. In this configuration, Ferrari might turn their fortunes around, but the task ahead of Fernando Alonso is huge. I hope he manages to pull it off.