The Summer of Ferrari’s Discontent
Volume 47 Issue 17
Aug 20, 2022
Bob Varsha sums up the Formula One season thus far. Read on for his expert insight on the teams competing for the Championship.
A little over a year ago at the British Grand Prix, the Formula One World Championship revealed its vision for the next era of grand prix racing.
It was a radical departure from the ugly, complex cars of the day, with their stunted noses, angular surfaces and protruding barge boards.
The new concept featured clean, curving lines, and created road-hugging downforce by going back to the future: out were the flat-bottomed chassis in favor of venturi tunnels not unlike those of the 1970s, minus the clunky side skirts.
This new generation of racing cars became the longest and heaviest F1 machines ever, and the switch from 13-inch wheels and Pirelli tires to 18-inch hoops begged the question: how would these new cars race?
The answer has been positive. On the plus side, much of the turbulent aero wake of the previous cars was gone, allowing pursuers to run closer to the car ahead.
The Drag Reduction System was retained, becoming an even more important tactical element in the races. Initial concern that all the teams might come up with identical designs proved unfounded.
Pre-season testing featured an array of innovations, led by Ferrari, Red Bull and Mercedes.
However, moving downforce generation to the underfloor of the cars created aerodynamic oscillation, dubbed “porpoising,” that caused the cars to bounce as the rear of the chassis was squeezed down by aero effect, only to stall out and kick back up violently on the rear suspension several times per second.
These oscillations were physically hard on the drivers, and made the cars unstable.
The FIA stepped in on safety grounds, writing new rules that come into effect when the season resumes in Belgium.
Although the teams made great progress at eliminating the problem by the three-week summer break after Hungary, penalties await teams who violate the acceptable level of oscillation, using an algorithm I won’t even attempt to explain.
Leading the way into the new season was Ferrari, whose beautiful F1-75 featured deeply-sculpted side pods, and the red cars were competitive from the outset.
Charles Leclerc won two of the first three races from pole and finished second in the other, topping the championship through the first six races.
Carlos Sainz provided second, third and fourth places before sailing to his first career victory in the British GP, round ten.
But the Scuderia’s successes flattered only to deceive. Crashes or breakdowns for both Leclerc and Sainz in Australia, Spain, Azerbaijan (both cars) Austria and France erased any possible points.
The team burned through their allotment of powertrain components, leading to grid penalties.
Mishandled pit stops, tire strategy blunders in Monaco and Hungary, and a public radio spat over team orders at Silverstone all exposed the team’s operational weaknesses.
While Ferrari reached the summer break second in both championships, the gaps to the front-runners look fairly insurmountable.
Those leaders are Max Verstappen, Sergio Pérez and Red Bull Racing.
The RB18 stumbled early on, both cars retiring in Bahrain, and Verstappen a second time two races later in Australia. But reigning champion Verstappen won six of the next eight races, with “Checo” contributing an additional win in Monaco.
Max also remains undefeated in the sprint qualifying races, worth eight bonus championship points in each.
Verstappen leads Leclerc by eighty points with nine races to go, meaning the Dutchman could fail to score in three straight Leclerc victories without losing the top spot.
Pérez lies third, sandwiched between Leclerc and Sainz.
Will RBR be distracted by their expected powertrain linkup with Porsche? It may be the competition’s only hope.
Ironically, the most radical 2022 design came from Mercedes, who have simply owned the turbo-hybrid power era, winning every constructors’ title from 2014 to 2021, and seven of eight drivers’ crowns for Lewis Hamilton.
The gasp was audible when the covers came off the new F1-W13, not because of what was there, but what wasn’t, specifically the side pods that house the radiators and structures called Side Impact Spars.
Exposed were the thick slabs of carbon fiber that serve as crash energy attenuators, the upper spars used as a mounting point for the rear-view mirrors for Hamilton and new teammate George Russell.
The radical car left the champions on the back foot from the start of the season. Thirteen races into 2022, and a Mercedes has yet to win.
That said, they are clearly “best of the rest.” Russell finished in the top five in the first nine races, retired in Britain, then bounced back with three more, including a maiden pole in Hungary.
Hamilton found his feet with a fourth-place at round eight in Azerbaijan, then followed up with five straight podiums.
Despite not winning, the drivers lie fifth and sixth in points, and a close third among constructors. More importantly, they are steadily improving.
Once again this season, the midfield battle has been chaotic on and off the track.
Both the McLaren MCL36 and Alpine AT522 have been inconsistent from circuit to circuit.
Each team has an outstanding young driver; McLaren’s Lando Norris and Alpine’s Esteban Ocon, seventh and eighth in points, lead their elder teammates in the standings.
Now, the chaos: Daniel Ricciardo has not delivered the expected performance for McLaren, and was dropped by the team in favor of fellow Aussie and former F3/F2 champion Oscar Piastri, who was deemed contractually free of his reserve role at Alpine by the FIA.
Fernando Alonso was announced as Sebastian Vettel’s replacement at Aston-Martin just days after Vettel’s surprise retirement, so Alpine turned to Piastri, who was gone to McLaren!
Bets are Ricciardo will return to his former Alpine (Renault) seat, but stay tuned.
Falling away from the ever-quickening pace of the field is Alfa Romeo, depriving Valtteri Bottas of the pleasure of racing former Mercedes teammate Hamilton closely in the first seven races, at which point the performance of the Ferrari-powered C42 declined, leaving Bottas and rookie Quanyu Zhou of China often relegated to the back half of the field.
The surprise to date is Alpha Tauri, and not in a good way.
The AT03 uses the same powertrain as sister team Red Bull, and yet Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda have produced double-digit points just once (Gasly, in Azerbaijan).
Both drivers have been involved in multiple collisions, and second-year man Tsunoda is said to be in doubt for 2023.
Not as surprising is the plight of Aston-Martin, now in its third season under the ownership of billionaire Lawrence Stroll.
The team has fallen from fourth to seventh to their current position of ninth, despite the efforts of Vettel and teammate Lance Stroll in the difficult AMR22.
Stroll has failed to score in fourteen of the last twenty races.
Replacing Vettel is the ageless Alonso (actually 41), now the all-time record-holder for F1 longevity, distance raced, laps led and so on.
Although he’s unlikely to add a third world championship, he is relentless, and could provide a boost if his famously mercurial personality doesn’t get in the way.
Elsewhere, the Haas team has shown a spark. After bringing back their most successful driver, Kevin Magnussen, to partner Mick Schumacher, and using the resources made available by declining to develop their car in previous seasons, the new VF22 came out of the box scoring points.
But their one and only planned update package has come and gone without improving performance.
Schumacher’s future is a question after a series of costly crashes, but the breakout stars of the Netflix series “Drive to Survive” are showing a pulse, up to seventh among constructors, as American fans await word of Michael Andretti’s efforts to add a third American-owned F1 team.
The good news at Williams is that, unlike recent seasons, the FW44 has finally scored any points at all.
The bad news is that there have only been three, all from Alex Albon, who has signed a new contract.
Nick Latifi is rumored to be on the way out, and as the silly season continues expect to hear more unfamiliar names as the next generation continues to step up to Formula One.
A few words in closing about Sebastian Vettel. We watched a natural enter F1 as a teenager and evolve over fifteen seasons, scoring points at age 19 in his debut for Williams-BMW at Indianapolis in 2007, earning long-suffering Toro Rosso their first pole and victory a year later.
He dominated en route to four world championships 2010-2014 with Red Bull, faced the pressures and politics at Ferrari, and ran out the string with Aston-Martin.
His resume includes third place in career victories, and fourth in championships. Along the way he developed an appreciation for society’s problems, speaking out for human rights, gender equality, and climate change.
A hard, even ruthless competitor on track, Vettel has been difficult to like now and then. But all the while he has been honest and forthright. We won’t see his like for a long time.