Following the split-second call made by Stefano Domenicali in the championship clinching Abu Dhabi grand prix last year- to bring Fernando Alonso into the pits to cover off an early stop by Mark Webber- Ferrari gained heavy criticism, not just from Ferrari chairman Luca Di Montazemolo but also the unwelcome input from Italian politicians. This criticism nearly led to the resignation of team principal, Domenicali, for making a judgement call, which on a different day could have provided Ferrari with their first Drivers Championship since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
However, three races into the current campaign and the Tifosi are beginning to appreciate how close their team came to an amazing comeback. It took an outstanding team effort to lead the drivers championship going into the final race of a nailbiting season. The comeback began after Alonso found himself nearly fifty points behind following a fourteenth place finish at the British grand prix. Following Silverstone, the F10 underwent rapid development resulting in the controversial 1-2 finish at Hockenheim two weeks later. Although after this race Ferrari still had a car slightly slower than the Adrian Newey designed Red Bull, the Ferrari established itself as the most reliable car on the grid. This led to Fernando Alonso achieving the feat of finishing five consecutive races on the podium from the Italian Grand Prix to the penultimate race in Brazil, including back to back wins in Monza and Singapore.
Now back to 2011, Vettel’s wins in Australia and Malaysia in addition to his second place in Shanghai has left Alonso 42 points of the pace- a very significant margin after only three races. Despite Ferrari’s race pace not actually being that slow, the same cannot be said of their raw pace in qualifying under a light fuel-load and fresh tyres. The Ferrari was a mammoth 1.4 seconds behind Vettel in qualifying 3 in China and this gap needs to be reduced by about a second if they are to make an impression in the races. Also of concern to Ferrari is that unless the car improves, they will fall back into the clutches of the best of the rest -Mercedes and Renault- as we saw with Nico Rosberg producing an excellent drive to finish above both Ferraris in China.
One silver lining for Ferrari though has been the improved performances of Felipe Massa. The Brazilian, who looked out of sorts last season following the terrible high speed crash suffered in Hungary in 2009, showed in China at least that he might be rediscovering his best form. Viewers have become accustomed to seeing Massa approximately 0.3 seconds a lap slower than his two time world champion team-mate, however in China he matched Alonso in qualifying and went on to overtake him into turn one. Alonso’s starts this year have not been up to scratch, losing him places in every race so far and Ferrari need to see whether the source is the driver or the car before they can address the problem.
As the top employees at Ferrari head back to Maranello during this three week break to find the weaknesses of the car, at least Ferrari can draw on last year’s comeback as a great motivation for starting this year’s. Although I’m sure Domenicali and co. would not have been expecting to be having to make such drastic steps following a successful winter testing in Barcelona, where Ferrari looked the pick of the bunch after Red Bull. Yes, McLaren have developed their car an amazing amount since testing, but this does not explain why the Red Bull has been so much faster in comparison to the Ferrari in the first few races than it was in tests. Sandbagging is a good possibility but another key factor is generally believed to be the effect of cold track temperatures on the tyres. The track temperatures in Barcelona and Abu Dhabi were considerably warmer than what we have seen so far this season but the extent of this on the relative pace of the Ferrari? - Only time will tell.
Ferrari have a long time (16 races) until the end of the season to demonstrate the potential of the Ferrari 150 but at the vast rate of noughts that Sebastian Vettel is pulling away out front, they need to find an immediate improvement over the next few races to be in the hunt come the end of the season.