Resurgent Ferrari with Charles Leclerc at the wheel have the jump on rivals
Formula 1 is an ever-changing landscape where innovation, technology, money and talent intersect to provide the best racing drivers with the best equipment to compete in the most glamorous racing challenge on the planet.
There are few constants in the sport, but one immovable object has always been the presence of the prancing horse on grids from Baku to the Yas Marina. Nothing says F1 like the name “Ferrari” after a 72-year association with the sport. Ferrari is the only team that has competed in every F1 world championship since 1950.
Mercedes-Benz may be the modern power and Red Bull the only realistic challengers over the past decade, but F1 and Ferrari are intertwined. If the Scuderia ever pulled out of F1, it would change the sport as we know it.
So, after years in the “midfield” after failing to match Mercedes and Red Bull in both design and engine power, Ferrari are back in 2022.
In Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc, whom Ferrari employed in 2019 to be the face of their rebuild, they have the talent and the speed to win a first world title since 2007 when Kimi Räikkönen piloted their last truly competitive car.
Leclerc has won two of the opening three races in 2022 and placed second in the other. He has 71 points on the standings and is a whopping 34 clear of Mercedes’ new boy George Russell. Ferrari are also 39 points clear of second-placed Mercedes in the constructors championship, with Red Bull a further 10 points adrift.
With 19 races remaining, it’s premature to suggest this is a full-scale changing of the guard, but Ferrari are clearly the fastest car on the grid. They basically wrote off the 2021 season to focus on developing the 2022 model – the F1-75.
With new regulations coming into effect this season, Ferrari wasted little time and budget on giving the 2021 model aerodynamic tweaking over the second part of last season. They pushed their resources and wind tunnel time into the F1-75 and the result is that they have the jump on competitors.
“Keeping up the level on a long season is a challenge, not just for us but all the teams,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said after the season’s second Grand Prix in Saudi Arabia, where Leclerc was second. It’s true that our competitors have very strong development; in 2017 and ’18 we lost a bit of ground,” Binotto said.
“But since then, in car design, we have improved our [wind] tunnel, technologies, processes and simulations and so today we are much better prepared than in the past to do a good job with development.
“We [also] have a budget cap which will affect the rate of development – we need to make sure we have the right policy on that, as it could be a game-changer in the fight for development.”
Leclerc has taken pole position in the two races he has won this season – in Bahrain and Australia – and started second in Saudi Arabia, where he finished second. He also has three extra points for setting the fastest lap in each of the first three races of the campaign.
Leclerc has growing confidence thanks to a machine that is performing in terms of speed and reliability. And it’s great for the sport because Red Bull, who have serious reliability issues, and Mercedes, who are struggling with handling and pace, will improve.
Leclerc was 20 seconds ahead of Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez in Melbourne, which is a massive margin. Teammate Carlos Sainz spun out of the race early on, but his pace has also been impressive.
“It feels incredible because now I know underneath me I’ve got a car that is capable of winning,” Leclerc told reporters after winning in Australia. “I know that it’s in the car and I just have to do the job, so the mindset is a little bit different this year.
“Obviously, we are only at the third race, so it’s difficult to think about the championship – but to be honest we have a very strong car and a very reliable car too, and for now we have always been there [at the top] so I hope it continues.
“And if it does [continue] we probably have chances for the championship like this – we will be fighting for the championship, which obviously makes me very happy after the last two years that have been difficult for the team and for myself, so it’s great to be back in this position.”
To add to the feel-good factor about Ferrari, the next race on 22 April is at their home track in Italy. The Tifosi (Ferrari’s loyal fans) will be out in force after two years of Covid restrictions. The pressure on Leclerc and Sainz to win at home will be massive, but so will the celebrations be if they do.
“I don’t want to focus too much on the championship for now,” Leclerc said. “Italy will be incredible, but we need to approach the race weekend just like we approach the first three weekends.
“I think it’s extremely important not to put extra pressure on ourselves and not try to overdo things.”
Lewis and Max
Reigning world champion Max Verstappen has failed to finish two races but won the one he did complete, in Saudi Arabia. He is already a mammoth 46 points behind Leclerc. For context, seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton’s biggest margin behind Verstappen in 2021 was 32 points. They went into the final Grand Prix of 2021 level.
Hamilton has at least finished all three races but his car has been well off the pace of Ferrari and even Red Bull, when it has lasted.
“We are already so far down in the championship that from now onwards basically you first need to be faster than them [Ferrari], which we’re not, and zero problems with the car which we also don’t have,” said Verstappen after the Australian Grand Prix.
“So it’s going to be a big task. We are already miles behind so I don’t even want to think about the championship fight at the moment. I think it’s more important to finish races. Of course, today was in general just a bad day again.
“But we didn’t even finish the race so it’s pretty frustrating and unacceptable.”
Mercedes, winner of the past eight constructors titles, have not adapted well to the major aerodynamic rule changes introduced this season, with their performance and pace disappointing in the early races.
“I think we are on the back foot,” Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff told reporters at Albert Park of the team’s title hopes.
“If I look at it from a mathematical standpoint and probability I would probably say that the odds are two-to-eight, but this is motor racing and in motor racing anything can happen.
“So as a motor racer I would say it’s probably 40-60… We are not going to write the title off but it’s just the current status quo.” DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.