Ferrari car launch sets the tone for a drama-less 2020

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REGGIO EMILIA — For a team that struggled to escape drama in 2019, it seemed fitting that Ferrari decided to launch its new car in an 18th-century theatre on Tuesday night.

Thirty kilometres from the team’s base in Maranello, VIP guests, 350 members of Ferrari’s workforce and countless ranks of the Italian military were packed into the four tiers of Reggio Emilia’s Teatro Romolo Valli. On stage, displays of ballet dancing and acrobatics dovetailed speeches from Ferrari’s top management, which promised a brighter future while reminding those present of the brand’s responsibilities to its illustrious past.

An orchestra fought a losing battle to be heard above an ever-present DJ set, but in terms of launch ceremonies, it’s unlikely that anyone is going to come close to topping Ferrari this week. The 90-year-old Italian racing team was clearly keen to make a statement. But by the end of the evening, it wasn’t entirely clear what the statement was.

Team principal Mattia Binotto is no showman. His background is in engineering, and for him, the only show that matters is the one that takes place on track on a Sunday afternoon. No doubt if the decision had been his, the SF1000 (a name celebrating Ferrari’s 1000th Formula One race later this year) would have rolled out on the first day of testing and perhaps kept its internal project name, 671.

A matter-of-fact news conference followed the all-singing, all-dancing presentation in which Binotto was more comfortable talking about wheelbases and rake angles than a repeat of the fireworks of 2019. Yet for the majority of the attending media, the fragile, human relationship between teammates Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel was the first point of interest.

A number of flash points between the two drivers were well-documented last year, culminating in the now-infamous images of the pair colliding on track in Interlagos. At the heart of the issue was the inescapable fact that four-time champion Vettel had underperformed over the course of the year, and new recruit Leclerc had overperformed.

The dynamic within the team swung from Vettel this time last year toward Leclerc by the time he secured victory on Ferrari’s home soil at Monza. The 22-year-old, 10 years junior to Vettel, finished the season with more points, more pole positions and more wins than his more experienced teammate.

Ferrari’s partiality toward its younger driver manifested in a lucrative contract in December, which will keep Leclerc in red overalls for the next five years. The question was where that left Vettel and what it would do for the team dynamic.

Vettel’s contract expires at the end of the year, and with no deal in place, his career hangs in the balance. Viewed from one side, he has nothing to lose, but he also needs to toe the line if he is to be retained by the Scuderia. The situation could be volatile or exactly what Ferrari needs.

Binotto played his first card on Tuesday by distancing the team from rumours that it was chasing six-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and naming Vettel the front-runner for the vacant seat in 2021.

“Seb is our first choice at the moment,” he said. “It is something we are discussing with him, and we will continue to discuss with him, but he’s certainly our first option and our preference at the moment.”

As for Vettel, he was keen to play down the situation, knowing — for now at least — that options are still open to him.

“Three years ago, I didn’t have a contract ’til August, so strictly speaking, I was out of business half a season before it finished,” he said, referencing the last deal he struck with the team. “At some point, you need to sort out what is going on in the future. But we have enough time.

“I’m not taking any extra stress or pressure. Last year good for me, in terms of learning a lot of things, understanding a lot of things. I’m not stressed but certainly ambitious to prove it to myself.”

Whether Vettel remains Ferrari’s first pick for 2021 will largely depend on what happens on track. You don’t need to have been in F1 for long to know that what’s said at launches does not always translate in reality.

If Vettel can coexist with Leclerc, there is no need to change him, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of imagination to picture a continuation of the problems of 2019 this year.

One thing is for sure: It’s going to be fascinating to watch. Bring on the second act.

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