What went wrong for Ferrari in 2019?

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That was the assessment Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s team principal, when asked where his team’s 2019 season had gone wrong after the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. It was a year that started with the promise of Maranello’s first title in over decade but ended 43 seconds behind the winning Mercedes over a 55-lap race. Along the way its two drivers had fallen out and the team had been accused of cheating — an accusation still angled at the team when journalists’ Dictaphones are switched off.

So what went wrong?

Boil the failures of the season down and Binotto is right; you are left with a car that wasn’t fast enough and a team that regularly tried to overreach to make up for it. That shouldn’t excuse the errors that peppered Ferrari’s worst season since 2016, but it helps to explain them.

“I think it was the car project that was not good enough to start with,” Binotto continued. “Our development rate, and generally speaking our design, was not as good as our main competitor’s. I think that’s the reason.”

Jump to: What was wrong with Ferrari’s car design? | Mistakes and internal divisions |

Expectations versus reality

Rewind to the opening week of pre-season testing and the mood around Ferrari was completely different. Rejuvenated under new team boss Binotto, there was a sense that 2019 could really be the year. The car was quick out of the box and the blame culture that had lingered over the team under Binotto’s predecessor, Maurizio Arrivabene, had been lifted.

“We couldn’t have hoped for a better day — it was unbelievable,” Sebastian Vettel said in mid-February after stepping out of the car for the first time. “The car is working, I feel comfortable and I’m going to sleep well tonight. The guys are very happy.”

Regulation changes aimed at improving overtaking had necessitated a complete redesign of the front wing and barge board areas for all teams in 2019. The new rules destroyed the powerful flow structures that had been developed since 2017 when the current generation of wider-bodied cars made their debut and it seemed possible that reigning champions Mercedes had been hit hardest.

So significant was the setback that when Mercedes first experimented with a wing designed to the 2019 regulations it discovered it had lost 2.5 seconds of lap time compared to its 2018 design. That was a loss the team wasn’t willing to accept, but in order to hit its launch date, the world champions came up with a compromise solution for the first test before an overhaul of every aerodynamic surface at the second test. At the first test, the Ferrari was the class of the field, but when Mercedes turned up with its “real” 2019 car in the second week, the rate of development stepped up a gear.

Ferrari didn’t stand still, but in comparison it lost ground. The true order emerged on the final day of pre-season testing when Mercedes finally set a lap time to rival Ferrari’s best, but by that point, the pre-season narrative was already set and the expectation was on Ferrari to turn up in Australia and dominate.

What was wrong with Ferrari’s design?

As with any regulation change, the teams had no visibility of what their rivals were doing. Two types of front wing emerged from the new rules and it soon became clear Mercedes and Ferrari were at either end of the scale. Mercedes’ solution was a more traditional approach, with high, steep flaps running the length of the wing while Ferrari’s design saw the flaps taper down towards the endplates. The aim of both was to maintain the flow of air around the front tyres that the previous year’s wing had so meticulously managed, but Ferrari’s approach sacrificed more front-end downforce to do so.

However, the Ferrari approach proved to be more efficient design – generating its downforce with minimal trade off in terms of drag. But when it came to overall levels of downforce, it was found wanting and that also created issues in getting the 2019-spec tyres to work.

The first sign of trouble came at the opening round in Australia. Ferrari was over 0.6s off the pace in qualifying and finished fourth and fifth as Mercedes took a dominant one-two victory. Without doubt, the circuit played to the strengths of Mercedes while exposing the weaknesses of the Ferrari, but even Ferrari did not expect to be that far off.

“We were expecting a better performance after winter testing, and I think that we never really understood what happened from Barcelona to Australia,” Binotto said in Abu Dhabi. “If anything, Mercedes certainly made a jump ahead. I think that from our perspective, then we had performance weaknesses in the car that we improved all through the season.”

On its return to Maranello, Ferrari shifted the target date four weeks earlier for its first engine upgrade so it arrived at the Spanish Grand Prix rather than the Canadian. Although that wouldn’t address the car’s lack of downforce directly, it was a sign of the team’s concerns from the very first round. But while Ferrari recognised the severity of the situation internally, the burden of expectation on the outside remained in line with the levels of performance it had showed in preseason.

The second round in Bahrain only served to enforce the preseason narrative. The circuit’s long straights, abrasive track surface and lack of medium-speed corners played to the strengths of Ferrari. After securing pole, Leclerc was on course for a memorable debut victory when a short circuit in the engine’s control electronics cut a cylinder and he lost power. Some of the vices of the SF90 were still clear to see in Vettel’s performance in Bahrain, but on the evidence of the first two races it should have been one victory each between the top two teams.

The reality, however, was that Mercedes had a car that was competitive at all types of circuit, while the Ferrari was only really on form on tracks that included long straights. It was a theme that continued throughout the year and by the time Ferrari made genuine progress, at the Singapore Grand Prix in late September, it was too little too late.

Mistakes and internal divisions

In trying to chase Mercedes with an inferior car, Ferrari made a number of on-track mistakes. Extra pressure was piled on the team’s shoulders to win at circuits that suited the car and both the team and its drivers threw away good opportunities in Baku, Canada and Germany before the summer break.

In trying to secure the best team result, Ferrari also delivered team orders in Australia, China and Spain that may have made sense on paper but only served to put extra strain on an already tense rivalry between its two drivers.

By all accounts, Leclerc impressed on his debut year with Ferrari in what was only his second season in Formula One. He made mistakes — notably in Baku during qualifying, in Monaco after starting out of position and in Germany in difficult conditions — but no more than would reasonably be expected from a 22-year-old driving for the sport’s biggest name.

But the team dynamic was rigged in Leclerc’s favour from the start. Fail to beat Vettel, a four-time world champion with over 50 career victories, and it would be no surprise. Get close or even beat him and the focus would instantly deflect onto the other side of the garage. Vettel had the added pressure of coming into 2019 off the back of two disappointing seasons in 2017 and 2018, and with it came further race-defining mistakes in Bahrain, Canada, Great Britain and Italy.

The questionable team orders early in the season could be swept under the carpet as they mainly favoured Vettel – something the team had said it would do ever since the launch of the car. But in Monza — the scene of Ferrari’s most important win of the season — there was an underlying drama that undoubtedly left its mark on the intra-team battle between the teammates.

In the final session of qualifying, Ferrari had told its two drivers to help each other out by offering slipstreams to one another on Monza’s long straights. Roughly 0.5s of lap time can be found with a well-timed slipstream and, with its straight-line speed advantage, Ferrari had a car capable of locking out the front row of the grid.

Leclerc was due to get a tow from Vettel on the first run and that side of the bargain was neatly upheld when he took provisional pole position. Yet when the roles were reversed on the second run, Leclerc was reluctant to lead the pack onto the flying lap and — in what became a farcical game of chicken between all the cars on track — ended up leaving it too late to give Vettel a slipstream. Leclerc went on to win the race from pole position as Vettel spun out while playing catch up from fourth on the grid — a result that only strengthened the sense of injustice from the day before.

The senior Ferrari driver felt a degree of redemption when he won the next race in Singapore thanks to a Ferrari strategy that secured the team’s first one-two victory in over two years but saw Vettel shuffled ahead of Leclerc at the pit stops. But the scores still weren’t settled between the Ferrari drivers and just one week later, Vettel reneged on a pre-race agreement in Russia and refused to obey orders from the pit wall to let Leclerc past early in the race. Vettel’s race ended with an MGU-K failure, which also dropped Leclerc to third, but the damage to the teammate relationship was visible as they both stared at their shoes during a post-race press conference with Binotto.

By the time the pair went wheel-to-wheel on lap 66 of the Brazilian Grand Prix there was a certain inevitability about the collision that followed. A year of one-upmanship, usually to the frustration of Vettel, saw a minor collision end in a shower of sparks and shattered carbon fibre. On top of a season of missed targets, Ferrari now had a very public problem with its drivers to deal with.

It probably didn’t help matters that in trying to close the gap to Mercedes, Ferrari had to load the front of the car with downforce, changing the balance away from Vettel’s liking. Since his time at Red Bull, Vettel has always preferred a planted rear end and as the aero balance shifted forward and the car became quicker as a result, it was no coincidence that Leclerc secured five of the team’s six consecutive pole positions between the Belgian Grand Prix and Mexico. After entering the season with a car he believed could win a fifth world championship, Vettel finished it just trying to stay ahead of his teammate.

A young team

A degree of inexperience on the pit wall may also have played against Ferrari in 2019. Binotto often refers to Ferrari as a “young” or “new” team, which seems odd given the brand celebrated its 90th year in 2019. But as a group of individuals working together, Ferrari is relatively junior compared to main rivals Mercedes, which has a wealth of experience on its pit wall and a core engineering team that dates back long before its first championship success as Brawn GP in 2009. And when the relatively inexperienced Ferrari team is expected to out-race Mercedes using an inferior car, it is perhaps no surprise they have fallen flat more often than not.

“Each single mistake, if you tackle it from a lesson learned perspective, you can improve yourself,” Binotto said on Sunday. “There is nothing that has to be changed in terms of big changes, it is a matter of experience.

“We have always said we are a new team, especially in the key roles, and we are on a very steep learning curve, so it is really a matter of making sure whatever happened this season is addressed. And I’m pretty sure there will be a point where we should end up with no mistakes.”

The positives for 2020

Although Ferrari failed to hit its lofty targets this season, there were signs of progress in 2019. The team still has the most powerful engine on the grid and, despite speculation over the legality of its fuel system at certain races, it emerged from the final two races with an advantage over both Red Bull and Mercedes on the straights. The FIA impounded Ferrari’s fuel system after the Brazilian Grand Prix, but despite extensive checks and a series of technical directives to tighten the net around potential loopholes, the governing body has found nothing untoward.

The Singapore car update proved there was development potential in the current car concept, albeit not enough to match Mercedes, which delivered a counter-punch upgrade at the following round in Japan.

Assuming Ferrari maintains its power advantage and continues to tap into the vein of development that delivered the Singapore upgrade, there is a chance it will be able to rival Mercedes in 2020.

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