At the start of the season and indeed right up until summer break there was a belief that both the drivers and constructors championship fight would go down to the wire in Abu Dhabi.
The fight between both Mercedes and Ferrari and their star drivers, Lewis Hamilton for Mercedes and Sebastian Vettel for Ferrari, looked to be closely matched. With each team taking decisive blows and maximising their points advantages when the opportunity arose for them. Fast forward five races and as we head to the US Grand Prix it seems almost inevitable that Mercedes will win a fourth constructors championship on the bounce this weekend. And while it seems more than likely the drivers championship will carry on for a few more races, Hamilton looks to be on the brink of becoming the most successful British Formula 1 driver of all time with a fourth world championship, as it will take a minor miracle to see Vettel claw back the 59 point advantage Hamilton currently holds over him.
Ferrari, for a team that had no victories in 2016, to turn their car and team around and win four races in 2017 is an impressive feat that should not be overlooked. Especially considering Ferrari looked to be in shambles during their 2016 campaigned with bad strategy calls, questionable in fighting between senior management and drivers, and some hot headed driving from Vettel. Their position during the winter break before the 2017 season looked to be questionable at best with three wins from the last three seasons. But pre-season testing offered a glimpse at the true pace that the SF70-H that would be released throughout the season. The Ferrari, on the whole, has consistently been the faster car throughout the season when pitted against their rivals Mercedes and Red Bull. However as a result of that, only winning four races against a Mercedes even senior management have claimed is a “diva” at times is not something the team can be particularly proud of. The statistics are telling, Ferrari have only won the one race in the last ten since their dominating win in Monaco earlier on this season. Mercedes meanwhile have worked hard to understand their “diva” W08 car and the result has been ten victories apiece for their drivers. As well as Mercedes getting the measure on Ferrari over the season Red Bull, who started the season over a second off the pace in their RB13, have now caught up to Ferrari and are only two race victories behind them in the tally for this season.
So where did it all go wrong for Ferrari in 2017. There are three key areas that the team have been struggling with against Mercedes especially and Red Bull as well. They are unreliability, points costing mistakes, and the fact that on the whole Valtteri Bottas is a better number two driver than Kimi Raikkonen has been.
The first issue has been the unreliability of the car. At the start of the season, especially compared to the Mercedes who picked up early penalties for gear box issues on Hamilton’s car, the Ferrari looked to be incredibly reliable. Even with their recent run of form, both Vettel and Raikkonen have only recorded one mechanical-related retirement apiece this season, which is impressive. The main issue is the failures have proven costly next to Mercedes bulletproof reliability. The team have suffered during qualifying and races, with turbo related issues in Malaysia resulting in Vettel starting on the back row while Raikkonen failed to start the race. While in Japan it was a simple £59 spark plug that caused Vettel to have to retire from the race, gifting Hamilton an easy race win and 25 points in the championship. The fly away races in Asia were supposed to be the races where Ferrari capitalised on the Mercedes slump they tend to suffer at those kinds of tracks. But far from that the team have actually seen Mercedes extend their lead in both championships. Blaming the entire championship failure on recent, though costly retirements, would be a gross overestimation. But these reliability issues have cost Ferrari substantial points in both championships, one they recognise themselves.
“It’s a problem [reliability] we’ve probably ignored over time because it was never of much importance,” said the Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne. “But now we’ve had at least three occasions where we’ve really seen the devastating impact on performance. We’ll fix it.”
This from the that set the modern standards for procedure, attention to detail, and reliability at the turn of the century with their eight constructors championships and six driver’s titles, it really is a case of how the mighty have fallen.
One of the other costly issues for Ferrari have been some of the in-season mistakes the team have made that have cost them points. Over the course of a twenty race season it’s almost an inevitability that a driver or team will make some costly mistakes that their rivals can capitalise on. And that the team will also suffer some bad luck as well. Mercedes have been no stagers to these issues, and in the first half of the season Hamilton did have his fair share of “off weekends” where Bottas was able to outperform him. In contrast Vettel has hardly been outpaced by Raikkonen all season, however that has not meant he has escaped some points costing issues.
One of Vettel’s greatest strengths is his passion, and on the same note of his greatest weaknesses is his passion. He has proven time and again that when the visor goes down, he becomes a different person. And that person is often a very angry driver. Some of his most famous meltdowns over team radio include Mexico 2016 when he infamously told race director Charlie Whiting to “F***k off.” as well as races like Turkey in 2010 when he launched into a foul mouthed tirade at his team after crashing with then team mate Mark Webber.
This season has been no different, and Vettel’s anger ultimately cost him major championship points in Baku. After feeling Hamilton “break tested” him at the second safety car start of the race, rather than wait for a Stewards enquiry, Vettel took things into his own hand and purposely smacked into Hamilton’s Mercedes. The result was a ten second stop go penalty for dangerous driving that took him out of contention for the win. He could have really capitalised as well as Hamilton had to make an unscheduled pitstop due to problems with his headrest. Valuable points in the championship thrown away from a “red mist” moment.
It’s not always the “red mist” moments that has cost Vettel this season, and Singapore is a clear case of what can happen when things go drastically wrong. Although Vettel started on pole his rather aggressive defending at the start would set off a chain reaction even he couldn’t have predicted. His squeezing of Max Verstappen backfired spectacularly and saw both Ferrari’s eliminated by the first corner, something that has never happened before in the history of Formula 1. Singapore was a race Vettel and Ferrari should have and were expected to win, it’s a race in the past Mercedes have really struggled to dominate, and yet despite that Ferrari left the Marina Bay circuit without a single point.
Without these two major slip ups, Vettel could have conceivably had an extra 38 points on top of his current points. Meaning the gap to Hamilton would have been less than a race win between them at 21 points rather than the 59 it is right now.
As a team Ferrari arguably could have won several critical Grand Prix’s earlier on this season, but the team faltered allowing Bottas to take advantage for Mercedes. In Russia despite their all Ferrari front row Bottas was able to overtake them and hold both drivers off to take the win. While both in Austria and Belgium despite having the race pace to win, the Ferrari’s once again lost out in the race to the Mercedes drivers. The team have also had their fair share of bad luck this season, particularly at the British Grand Prix. Dramatic last lap punctures for both drivers dropped them down the finishing positions, with Raikkonen just finishing on the podium in third while Vettel had to settle for seventh position.
With mistakes and bad luck like this costing the team points left right and centre, it’s easy to see why they are 145 points behind Mercedes in the Constructors championship, and looking set to lose yet another constructors championship.
The last area that has cost Ferrari this season has been in the battle of the “number two drivers,” which as always has proven to be an understated but critical factor in the championship.
The last driver to bring Ferrari a drivers championship, 2007 Drivers World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, has been given the status of the “number two driver” at Ferrari at has had to support Vettel at every opportunity. The team used this status to their advantage in Monaco, when they deliberately pitted Raikkonen five laps earlier than Vettel so the German would get the undercut and leapfrog him into the lead of the race. He has also played the compliant rear gunner to Vettel in Hungary, holding up the Mercedes duo behind him while Vettel limped home to a win in a compromised Ferrari. Compare this with Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas who was much more of a threat at the beginning of the season, winning two races and consistently scoring points. When F1 broke for summer break Bottas was only 19 points behind his team mate Hamilton in the drivers standings. Since the second half of the season kicked off though the Finn has struggled for pace, and as a result has seen his championship hopes evaporate, though there is still a chance he may be able to challenge for a second place finish in the championship.
However, comparing Bottas’ results to Raikkonen’s this season, it’s clear that out of the two compatriots that Bottas has been the better driver. He has proven invaluable for Mercedes, finishing in front of Vettel five times this season and stopping him from gaining critical points in the championship. Meanwhile Raikkonen has only finished ahead of Hamilton on three occasions. And in terms of podiums they have been able to secure for their team. Bottas has managed to pick up ten podium finishes to Raikkonen’s four. It’s this consistency and superiority that has helped Mercedes maintain their lead in the Constructors championship, and why they will likely win their fourth constructors championship in Austin this weekend.
It’s all these reasons together that have ultimately cost Ferrari another drivers and world championship. And with a ninth season looming without any silver-wear returning to Maranello, a lot of questions will surely be looming as well.