Thursday, 9 April 2009

Prancing Horse is falling at the first hurdles

In light of the new rules ripping up the original form book in Formula 1 and creating a brand spanking new one, it's clear to see that the teams that were considered the front runners and championship contenders last season have pretty much fallen from grace and found themselves dangerously close to the latter end of the midfield. McLaren have already admitted their car isn't up to scratch, but what of Ferrari?

Their start to what has so far been a thrilling 2009 season has been significantly less so. The proof is in the results - 2 races, 2 DNFs, 0 points. Massa and Raikkonen have had to sit and watch while the likes of Toyota, Williams, Red Bull and of course not forgetting Brawn GP have taken up the mantle as the new "Big 4" at the front with the ex-Honda squad leading the way with 2 victories. Looking at their rivals, it seems BMW are the ones coping with the new regulations the best. Already they've proved their car can run at the front given the right time and place and in some cases the right tyre compound. As for Renault, it's clear that their late season for from 2008 has vanished and while Alonso's getaway in Malaysia was simply astounding, it was down to his skills as a double world champion alone to hold off the chasing pack behind him along with the use of KERS as an aid. The car just simply is not up to scratch.

So what of the boys from Maranello? Why is it the first team to launch their 2009 contender finds themselves with nothing to show for their hard efforts over the winter after just 2 races? There's no denying they have the talent when it comes to personnel. Raikkonen is a world champion while Massa was one - for about 30 seconds. They have a 7 times world champion as an adviser and Stefano Domenicalli at the helm, someone who has worked with the team for over 20 years. I know for a fact he was Ferrari's commercial manager before being promoted to a more senior role. So if it's not the team it must be the car.

Reliability hasn't been something Ferrari have been able to lean on these past couple of seasons. It always seems like their cars have a tendancy of failing at the most inconvenient times. Suzuka 2006, Nurburgring 2007 and Hungary 2008 are 3 clear cases in point. While it could be said the Ferrari engine has been the most powerful, it's not the complete package that enables both the factory team and those that are customers to push on. The Mercedes-Benz unit is touted as the best all-round unit, which is probably why Force India and Brawn are partner and customer respectively. The trend has unfortunately continued for 2009. In Australia Massa had to park the car due to suspension problems while Raikkonen seemingly gave up the ghost sometime after a rather light but possible telltale spin into the wall which may have damaged the differential, the eventual cause of Kimi's DNF there. More car trouble arose for the Finn on Friday at Sepang when his KERS system's batteries caught fire and began to melt, causing the cockpit to fill with smoke and Kimi having to leap from his car rather hurridly. During the stoppage on the Sunday due to the heavy downpours, Ferrari themselves also revealed that had the race been scheduled to restart, there was a possibility they would have to retire Raikkonen after water was rumoured to have leaked into the car and caused internal damage.

So is it just a case of being too slow, or is it a lack of precision and common sense? Ferrari were the first to launch their car, as I've already mentioned earlier, but was this a mistake? We've seen that the likes of Red Bull and Brawn decided to work on their cars until the very last minute to try to exploit the rules as best as possible and for both of them it has paid off. There is always a gamble to take and a decision to make for all the teams when producing a car for a new season. Launching early means more track time at the risk of development work in the design studio while going late produces the opposite. From what we saw in winter testing, Ferrari virtually made no aerodynamic progress on their car whatsoever, or at least nothing significant that I could see anyway. So if they've launched early but not developed the car further to make it as fast as possible, what on earth have they been doing? Probably sat back sinking red wine and having extraordinarily long lunches, if you ask me.

It seems their trip to Bahrain hasn't done their car's pace or reliability any good whatsoever, and if it had, it wasn't as predominant as Toyota's and BMW's, and that is evident in their pace in the first 2 races. While they did top the time sheets on a couple of occasions out in the desert, it was fair to say they were not the dominant team there. Toyota had made huge steps to ensure the speed and reliability were up to scratch and the times showed that in evidence. Ferrari's mileage there was nothing compared to the Japanese team's. Glock and Trulli managed a total of approx. 4 race distances worth of laps in just 2 days, while the red cars didn't manage nearly as many.

Another factor could be their loss of focus on this season. If you'll quite clearly remember, they were fighting with McLaren for both championships last season while everyone else was clearly thinking of 2009 at that stage. BMW admittingly gave up on development of their 2008, but at a cost of Kubica losing out on a shot at the title. Honda, when they weren't pulling out of the sport, talked of nothing but '09 at their '08 launch, which made it clear they had no interest in succeeding that time around. Renault even reported they were done with it and decided it was time to switch focus, though that might have changed when Alonso eventually got into his stride with the R28. This may be the very reason why the former frontrunners are struggling. Preoccupied with trying to succed in 2008, they hadn't put enough attention into the new rules and only now are they paying for it in bad results and pace.

Ferrari seem to be pinning their hopes on the 3 teams running the controversial diffusers - Brawn, Williams and Toyota - being found illegal. But with the parts in question already being declared legal twice over by the FIA, it would seem stupid to change their minds. Team prinicipal Luca di Montezemelo has said it could cost Ferrari somewhere in the region of $20million dollars to implement such a diffuser onto their cars. Whether this is true or just an exagerrated figure, you can see what he means by it. Putting a new diffuser onto the car means a complete redesign of the underside. But with the world's economy not in the best shape and the FIA committed to reducing costs, you wouldn't have thought a team like Ferrari would be able to just use up money like that just to make their car that little bit faster. Raikkonen has said it himself that the outcome of this hearing at the FIA's Court of Appeal will be a deciding factor in this season's championship.

Perhaps Maranello is feeling the pressure right now. Their decision to run Kimi on wet tyres on the virtually dry track in Malaysia, despite the overhanging black clouds, proved ridiculous and somewhat comical. His laptimes fell dramatically as the tyres were torn to shreds and when the rain finally did come down, Raikkonen could clearly be heard on the radio saying "My tyres are completely destroyed". Right now, this is their worst start to a season since 1992, in which their car from that year has been classified by Autosport as one of the worst ever. Seems like at the moment, it's back to the good ol' days of comedy Ferrari, when the Italians thought they were doing something right when in reality, they're getting it very, very wrong.