There is no other team in Formula 1 so creative and gifted in generating heartbreak for their fans as Ferrari.
Memories of the halcyon days of the mid-2000s – where the scarlet team relentlessly rocked up to the F1 paddock ready to inflict heavy defeat upon their rivals every fortnight – were rekindled at the start of last season. Two wins out of three teased the Tifosi that they could finally imagine winning the grandest prize once again – until Max Verstappen and Red Bull turned Ferrari’s dream into a nightmare.
As brilliant as Red Bull were in 2022, it’s flattery to imply Ferrari’s defeat was entirely the making of the eventual world champions. It would even be kind to suggest Ferrari were simply beaten by the better team. They were, of course, but Ferrari’s self-sabotage was equally to blame for the countless crushed dreams of a first Maranello premiership in a decade-and-a-half.
But while a ruinous cocktail of baffling strategy calls, botched pitstops and ill-timed mechanical mishaps derailed Ferrari’s early season hype train, the reality is Ferrari never expected to be fighting for the titles last year. Mattia Binotto’s vision for his team always saw 2022 as a get-right year to re-establish themselves as race-winners – which they unquestionably succeeded in. Only Mercedes’ design misstep with their W13 elevated Ferrari to the position of Red Bull’s chief rivals, one which they clearly were not fully prepared to assume.
Whatever Binotto imagined for 2023 is no longer of consequence. Stepping aside at season’s end, Ferrari were in need of a bold, visionary leader to rally the troops and help prime them to battle for titles. They chose Frederic Vasseur.
To doubt Vasseur’s competence would be foolish. With wisdom forged through decades of experience operating racing teams, Vasseur knows uprooting Ferrari’s structure and rebuilding it in his image is not the way to go. Instead, Vasseur is playing the long game. By his own admission, he’ll cast his critical eye over the team’s first half of the season before he begins making wholesale changes to how they work, showing faith in the abilities of those now under his command.
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Vasseur also has immense belief in the two drivers under his stewardship. Reunited with Charles Leclerc after introducing him to Formula 1 at Sauber, Vasseur finds a far more experienced and skilled Leclerc than he worked with five years ago. Despite some regrettable errors, Leclerc dismissed any questions of whether he was ready to fight for a championship in 2022, scrapping hard with Verstappen for wins in the early phase.
Saturdays belonged to Leclerc last season. His unrivalled nine poles were the most accrued by a Ferrari driver since Michael Schumacher in 2001, cementing him as one of the elite drivers in the field in terms of raw pace. Too often on Sundays, however, Leclerc had to put on a brave face in the aftermath of yet another team-inflicted disappointment.
Holding on to second in the championship over Sergio Perez in what was clearly an inferior car by the closing rounds should give Leclerc confidence into the new season. If the team give him the car, Leclerc can challenge for wins. Whether that can be maintained across a 23-race season is a different matter.
Carlos Sainz Jnr is Ferrari’s second weapon. For the first time in his career, Sainz enters a season as a grand prix winner. Adding to his British Grand Prix triumph has to be his overriding goal in 2023, but there is a question of which Sainz will show up in Bahrain.
After acquitting himself admirably in his first year in Ferrari, when winning was still a distant dream, Sainz would have been frustrated by his fortunes in the early part of 2022. Leclerc adapted to the SF-75 and the dark art of ground effect aerodynamics quicker than Sainz did. As Sainz saw his team mate romp to a healthy early lead in the championship, his own bid was frustrated by avoidable errors, bad luck and simply failing to match Leclerc’s sheer speed.
Righting this required Sainz to rewire himself mentally, changing his approach to driving the car. Eventually, it paid off – Sainz appeared to get quicker as the year went on. Unfortunately for him, by the time he was at his best, Red Bull and Verstappen already had one hand on the title. A slow start is something Sainz cannot afford in 2023 if he wants to prove that he should be mentioned in the same breath as Leclerc, Verstappen and even Lewis Hamilton as a title hopeful.
But there are no guarantees Ferrari will find themselves involved in the battle for this year’s championship. By their own admission, the team burned through their development budget last season in a futile attempt to keep up with Red Bull, only finding Mercedes overtaking them up on pace by the season’s end, even if Ferrari remained ahead in the championship. They cannot afford to lose out in the development race again – especially with Red Bull limited by their reduced aerodynamic testing time.
A closer battle at the front will only place increased stress on their team, both on the pit wall and in the garage. Ferrari can ill-afford ill-discipline in the pit lane like it showed last season, especially when Red Bull are as well-drilled as any team on the grid. The fundamentals must be strong if Ferrari are to live up to Vasseur’s aim for fighting for the title this year.
“You can’t start the season to say ‘okay I would be happy with P2’,” he told media including RaceFans in his first media session after taking over. “That would be a lack of ambition. I think that we have everything to do a good job and the target has to be to win, for sure.”
When Ferrari unveil their new car on Valentine’s Day, it’s likely to be love at first sight for the millions of the team’s passionate fans across the world. All they ask of Ferrari is not to have their hearts broken for a second successive season.
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