Everybody loves an overreaction to a single event, don’t they? Well you’re going to get one right now.
Ferrari looks like the real deal, and perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised.
The power unit settlement with the FIA back in 2019 – announced at the start of 2020 – really pegged the team back. The whole car concept was wrong going into that next year and with the limitations placed on all of the teams by the COVID pandemic, it was heavily restricted in terms of what it could do to address its deficits heading into the 2021 season.
So Ferrari was almost forced into a longer-term view, with last year a form of write-off in terms of not being able to fight for championships.
But the turnaround was a very strong one given how far it had slipped in 2020. And with the new restrictions on aerodynamic testing that is defined by where a team finishes in the constructors’ championship, Ferrari actually had a bit of an advantage compared to the other big teams when it came to developing its 2022 car.
Why we shouldn’t be surprised relates to how much progress Ferrari made last season despite the limitations it had faced previously. Even with so much carryover, the Scuderia was a far more competitive proposition, particularly with its car in low-speed corners. The proof was in the consecutive pole positions scored in Monaco and Azerbaijan, with the team unfortunate in some ways that Singapore wasn’t on the calendar.
Significantly, that’s not a power unit related strength, so it shows Ferrari was making good progress with certain aerodynamic and mechanical aspects, rather than just relying on an all-out horsepower advantage to make it competitive.
Fast forward to the start of this season, and there are strengths that Ferrari appears to have carried over on that front, but then added to them with a far more impressive power unit to create an all-round stronger package.
Compared to the past few years, it also has a very different driver line-up, too. The usual Ferrari approach is to hire the biggest names, even pairing world champions together as was the case with Fernando Alonso and later Sebastian Vettel with Kimi Raikkonen. But with Raikkonen’s departure in 2018 came a shift in ethos, as Charles Leclerc received a seat that didn’t carry quite the same pressure a Ferrari drive normally does, with a view to allow him to develop for the future.
That proved so successful that an underperforming and expensive Vettel was dropped in preference of the extremely consistent Carlos Sainz, creating what has – up to now – been both a harmonious and highly successful driver line-up.
It’s actually a bit strange to think that Sunday was only the third victory of Leclerc’s career. He looks so at home when leading races, and has had ten pole positions, so it felt like the latest of many more than three, but aside from back-to-back wins with that questionable car in 2019, he hadn’t been on the top step until this weekend.
So the car is clearly a very quick one, and in Leclerc at least Ferrari has a driver who is capable of getting the most out of it even in wheel-to-wheel combat with Max Verstappen.
But then I have to burst the bubble slightly with a few reminders of the past. For one, the last time Ferrari sustained any real title challenge was in 2012, when Fernando Alonso somehow kept himself in the fight against Sebastian Vettel until that dramatic final round in Brazil.
Since then, there have been similarly strong outings in Bahrain, including victories in 2017 and 2018, with the latter coming after the Scuderia locked-out the front row but Kimi Raikkonen was forced to retire from the race.
On both of those occasions, Bahrain wasn’t even the first race of the season, and Ferrari had also taken victory in the season-opener courtesy of Sebastian Vettel each time. The signs were therefore not only good from the first race, but they were very good based on the wins in Bahrain that left Vettel with an early championship lead.
And you probably don’t need me to remind you that on both occasions the Ferrari title challenge really fizzled out mid-season and Lewis Hamilton was crowned world champion long before the final round in Abu Dhabi.
A big part of that was the driver, with Vettel making some costly mistakes at crucial times – most notably in the wet at Hockenheim in 2018 as Hamilton stormed through the field from 14th on the grid.
When we think of the driver pairing too, it is all well and good having two teammates who are getting on well when they are helping the team recover from a tough spell, working together to try and bring Ferrari back to the top. But can they maintain that positive atmosphere when there are race wins and a championship on the line? History suggests it rarely happens if the two drivers are free to fight for it.
But that would be a good problem for Ferrari to have, because it would mean the team has built on its early promise to deliver a title challenge. It would also mean Sainz has shown the same level of consistency in a race-winning car as he has been able to in one that is only at the front of the midfield.
It’s a new experience for Sainz, and one that every example he is able to provide so far suggests he will be completely at home with, but until he does it you just never quite know for sure.
The signs have been very good since 12 months ago and Ferrari continues to deliver on that, but it has been a decade since it delivered a season-long championship challenge and 15 years since a title itself.
So perhaps the best way to look at the prospects for 2022 – however it pans out – is that it will mark another big step forward compared to the past two winless seasons, and continue the momentum that should put it back in championship contention in the near future.
Even if that doesn’t turn out to be this year, the Ferrari recovery continues.