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The Ferrari optimism over its “worst-ever” start to an F1 season

Ferrari has made a sluggish start to the 2023 Formula 1 season and is yet to achieve a single podium finish after three races across Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Australia. But while the results leave much to be desired, the Italian marque remains upbeat about its chances for 2023

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF-23

At this point last year, Charles Leclerc had two wins under his belt to lead Ferrari’s blossoming title challenge, its most credible since 2018. Twelve months on, he has only finished one race of three to call it the “worst-ever start of the season”. Meanwhile, a distant sixth in Saudi Arabia left team-mate Carlos Sainz convinced that major car changes, rather than minor set-up tweaks, were now essential. 

All told, Ferrari sits just fourth in the points table while its 2022 rival Red Bull maintains a perfect win record. Yet new team boss Fred Vasseur cuts a much more optimistic figure. “We are [heading] in the right direction,” he says. “The mood in the team is more than good.”

This positive sentiment comes despite him dismissing the prospect of Maranello designing a ‘B-spec’ car for later this term. Since there is no silver bullet on the horizon certain to revive fortunes then, why is he this upbeat? 

PLUS: Why Ferrari isn't changing its 2023 F1 car concept to copy Red Bull

First, it should be acknowledged that both drivers and Vasseur might be guilty of overegging the pudding. Leclerc delivered his soundbite shortly after a contact-induced spin into the gravel on the opening lap of the Australian Grand Prix. Talking in the heat of the moment, it’s understandable if he held a particularly bleak outlook. Vasseur, meanwhile, might not want to tank morale or upset the Ferrari board this soon into his tenure so would be inclined to be a little more sanguine. 

It is also easy to pick fault with Vasseur citing the first three venues of Bahrain (abrasive asphalt), Saudi (dominated by straight-line performance) and Australia (heavily disrupted by red flags) as all having been anomalous. He says: “We need to understand that three events, it’s not the complete panel of the tracks”, and adds that fast Baku is also unconventional so even after four rounds, the true competitive order might not be clear. Only when the season settles down at more conventional circuits will Ferrari’s downforce-dominated car concept flex its muscles.  

Leclerc retired from the Australian Grand Prix on the opening lap

Leclerc retired from the Australian Grand Prix on the opening lap

Photo by: Lionel Ng / Motorsport Images

However, the problem with this argument is that to cast aside four tracks is to write off getting on for a quarter of the season. Plus, the team won at two of the venues last year and might have added a third in Azerbaijan had Leclerc’s engine not detonated. Finally, Red Bull’s clean sweep in this time proves a car can be suited to a variety of circumstances. But the SF-23 isn’t. 

It becomes easier to validate Vasseur’s optimism when reviewing a weekend Down Under that might be chalked as a missed opportunity. Tighter Melbourne should have better suited the Scuderia’s strengths over the previous round in Jeddah. But qualifying proved disappointing once again as Sainz chalked fifth with Leclerc a row behind in seventh.  

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However, some of their half-second deficit to polesitter Max Verstappen can be attributed to poor management from the pitwall. The Ferraris badly handled traffic on their preparation laps to allow tyre temperatures to drop and stymy their first sectors. A possible front-row start for one driver was lost, reckons Vasseur. 

While that marks poor execution, the fiddly final sector in Melbourne does indeed pave the way for cars to trip over one another. At other tracks, Ferrari should sort it better to be more in the mix. And refining trackside operations is a theoretically simpler task than upgrading a fundamentally subpar car. Hence, it’s not all doom and gloom. 

Arguably, events 24 hours later also proved deceptive. Leclerc was eliminated from the race before completing a single sector. Sainz, meanwhile, cut through the red-flag disruption to occupy a sound fourth place when he crossed the line behind the safety car. A final classification of 12th was owed to the five-second penalty for punting Fernando Alonso at the first corner, a decision which Ferrari has requested a right of review from the FIA.  

Frustration with the stewards aside, Sainz was swiftly forced into a drive of damage limitation after pitting immediately prior to the first stoppage. The looming red flag significantly compromised strategy. But as part of his recovery, race pace was comparable to Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso - within 0.2s per lap, while having the measure of Lance Stroll.  

Frederic Vasseur, Ferrari Team Principal, remains upbeat despite poor start

Frederic Vasseur, Ferrari Team Principal, remains upbeat despite poor start

Photo by: Ferrari

Vasseur explains: “We took a direction a bit different in terms of development for Australia. It paid off. The feeling was strange after because we were very frustrated. Quali, we are not far away to do a good job and for different reasons we didn't deliver. In the race, the pace was OK for me. We were a bit unlucky on the safety car red flag and we had to do an extra pitstop. But after this, [Sainz] was able to come back, overtake a couple of cars to push on the tyres.” 

Once Sainz had calmed down after his punishment from Race Control, Vasseur reckoned he was similarly reassured: “He took also the positive of the weekend, considering that even if we didn't score points for different reasons, that we did a real step forward in terms of performance and we have still 20 races to go. We have to look about the future. He had a good reaction. He was with us for the simulator [last week] and with a good fighting spirit.” 

When it comes to looking to the future, Vasseur promises Ferrari fans won’t have to wait long. While there will be no ‘B-spec’ - a decision driven by the cost cap, aerodynamic restrictions and a belief there is plenty more to come from the current guise - a rapid stream of more minor updates are in the pipeline.  

These won’t be introduced for Baku, when many rivals will debut new parts after the four-week break ends with a race much closer to their European headquarters to save on freight. Additionally, Ferrari reckons it already has an optimised aero configuration for Azerbaijan. Plus, the adoption of a second qualifying session for the first sprint event makes the round less attractive for upgrades. There’s heightened risk of crashing when the revised schedule adds an extra competitive element, and fewer practice sessions leave less time to correlate the impact of the new components. 

Instead, fresh parts will arrive for each of the Miami, Imola and Barcelona rounds. And these are being delivered ahead of time as Ferrari insists it has been quick to react to its tepid start. It has tweaked the development path to place an emphasis on resolving car balance and the update originally penned for Spain will now arrive in time for the first visit to Italy.  

While the upgrade programme favours evolution over revolution, Vasseur confirms Ferrari will still be aggressive: “We will continue to update this one and we'll try to update massively… We have the feeling and I hope that we are right, and we are going in the right direction, that we have still tons of room for improvement on the car. 

“It means that as long as we are still able to develop the car to get points, and the aero to get a better balance to get a better stability, it makes sense to push in this direction." 

There is a limit to Vasseur’s positivity. He refrains from committing to a goal of trumping Red Bull, Mercedes and Aston Martin. Rather, he wants his team to be insular. Ferrari has underperformed and needs to first of all focus on getting the most from its car, nailing strategy and preventing further unreliability (even if these are shortfalls carried over straight from 2022). But, crucially, Vasseur says he has seen enough potential. This is what underlines his and the squad’s upbeat tone.  

“The mood in the team is incredibly good for the level of results that we have,” insists Vasseur. “Everybody is very motivated, very focused. The drivers, they are very supportive with us. The relationship with John [Elkann, chairman] or with Benedetto [Vigna, CEO], trust me that it's also very positive. For sure, we don't have the results that we are expecting. But we are all working together to improve the situation.” 

Can Ferrari mount a challenge to Red Bull later in the season?

Can Ferrari mount a challenge to Red Bull later in the season?

Photo by: Ferrari

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