For the first time in three years, Ferrari will go to its local Formula 1 race in Italy this weekend with realistic chances of victory.
Ferrari lacked a car that was fast enough to challenge for wins in 2020 and 2021, but started this year by finishing first and second in Bahrain. It was a sign of his resurgence and fueled his hope for a championship.
But against reigning world champion Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and his Red Bull team, Ferrari have struggled to maintain a sustained challenge. Of the first 15 races, Ferrari won four; Verstappen only won 10.
“The first part of the season has been full of ups and downs,” said Monaco’s Charles Leclerc, Ferrari’s chief driver.
Leclerc has three wins but could easily be more. He was leading the race in Spain before engine failure forced him to retire. The same thing happened in Azerbaijan a few weeks later. In France, he lost control of his car, which spun into the barrier as he lost the lead again. Each time Verstappen capitalized to win the race.
The lost points added up and caused Leclerc to drop 109 points behind Verstappen, a gap the Ferrari driver admitted would be “extremely difficult” to fill.
But Leclerc’s efforts have not been helped by some of the decisions Ferrari have made with their strategy. At the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Leclerc was leading until a pit stop when Ferrari decided to fit their car with hard tyres. Although it is the most durable tire available to teams, it also takes longer to warm up, and that meant Leclerc fell behind his rivals, who opted for soft or medium tires in the colder conditions. He ultimately finished sixth; Verstappen won again.
In Belgium, Leclerc had to fight from the back of the field due to a team penalty for changing his engine, and was then forced to stop early to remove a piece of plastic from Verstappen’s helmet visor that he had discarded and was later left behind. stuck in front of Leclerc. brake line
Running fifth with two laps to go, Ferrari asked Leclerc to pit for new tires so he could try to earn a point by setting the fastest lap. He not only failed to set the fastest lap, but also lost a place after another speeding penalty in the pit lane.
Even with the championship further away, Leclerc said he was not upset with Ferrari’s strategy and that it was more frustrating to see the speed difference between his team and Red Bull.
“That’s what we have to work on,” he said, after watching Verstappen win again in Belgium.
Alpine’s Fernando Alonso said he was not surprised to see Ferrari take what seemed like an unnecessary risk. “Ferrari has been doing strange things,” he said. “That was another weird thing.”
Mattia Binotto, Ferrari’s team principal, defended the team’s strategy, saying there was “no need” to make any changes.
“Sometimes we are not making mistakes when it may have been perceived as a mistake. I think the call to stop it was the right one,” she said of Belgium. “You have to be brave in F1.”
The scrutiny Ferrari faces comes with the territory of being the most famous and successful team in Formula 1, with a record number of wins and championships. But it is also related to national importance: the team’s fans are passionate and the Italian media does not stop when things are not going well.
Carlos Sainz Jr. of Spain, Leclerc’s teammate, admitted he felt the criticism was “a bit harsher” for Ferrari compared to his previous teams in Formula 1.
“When there was a big mistake in strategy, no one came to point it out, criticize you and ground you as much as they do when you’re at Ferrari,” he said. “At Ferrari, everything seems bigger. The victory is bigger, the mistake is bigger. It’s something I’m adjusting to.”
Some of Ferrari’s mistakes have made life easier for Verstappen and Red Bull. They look ready to win the championships with ease. Verstappen said the way Red Bull learned from his mistakes was important to his success.
“In some races we have benefited from small mistakes or retirements,” said Verstappen, who noted that Red Bull also suffered setbacks earlier in the year. A fuel pump problem meant he didn’t finish two of the first three races.
“There are still a lot of races ahead where things can go wrong for us as well,” he added. “We have to be very focused on not making mistakes.”
Stefano Domenicali, the chief executive of Formula 1, felt that when it comes to Ferrari, “you can never say never”. He has experience of title comebacks, having worked at Ferrari in 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen overcame a 17-point gap with just 20 remaining in the last two races to win the championship.
“No one expected that,” Domenicali said. “I know he’s a big number, but I don’t see why Ferrari shouldn’t fight Red Bull again.”
Leclerc insisted that Ferrari stuck together despite setbacks.
“We’ve been working very closely together as a team,” he said. “That helped us get to the level we are at today in terms of performance. And this is exactly the same thing that we are trying to do now to improve.”
The fragile prospect of the championship makes Sunday’s race at the Monza track, outside Milan, more significant than usual for Ferrari. But Sainz called the prospect of fighting for victory in his team’s home race in front of a packed crowd “the best possible scenario that he can have as a racing driver”.
He promised to thoroughly enjoy the weekend, despite the additional commitments that come with Ferrari’s home race.
“There are always additional things, additional events, additional pressure,” he said. “Sometimes they may not allow you to open your eyes and see that this is really happening: I am racing for Ferrari at Monza in a competitive car.