Can Ferrari fight back to avoid worst season in decades?
A fourth-place finish is not usually much to shout about for Ferrari, but Charles Leclerc’s performance in Portimão at least set tongues wagging. Is the Scuderia about to recover its form?
This year has been one to forget Ferrari, with just two podium finishes so far and a slump from second to sixth in the constructors' championship. It is currently in line to record its worst finish in almost FOUR decades.
But in Portugal, after introducing a series of upgrades over three races, there were signs of improvement. And what better place to hit form this weekend than Imola, 75 miles from their factory? (Okay, Mugello would have been better, but…)
WORST OF THE WORST?
So, how bad has this season really been?
Since the turn of the millennium, Ferrari has only twice finished outside the top three, in 2009 and 2014. The last time they were outside the top four was in 1981, one year after their worst season, in which they finished 10th.
Ferrari’s performance this year has come as a result of a dramatic drop in form.
Last year, they were second, 87 points ahead of Red Bull with Charles Leclerc fourth in the drivers’ championship, 14 points behind third-placed Max Verstappen.
This year, with 70 per cent of the season done, they are 133 points behind second-placed Red Bull, while Leclerc, a place lower in the drivers' standings in fifth, is a massive 87 points off Verstappen in third.
The season, however, actually started well, with Leclerc second, third and fourth in the first five races. He was comfortably third in the championship and, despite just a sixth and two 10th-place finishes from Sebastian Vettel, the team was still third.
In the six races that followed, up to Portimão, Leclerc retired twice and took just three points finishes while Vettel only scored twice. Together, they added just 25 points to the constructors’ championship points total.
Yes, recent points scoring is poor and their performances have not been up to scratch, but don’t be fooled into thinking they are so far off the mark. At least the mark of those in front. And changes are afoot.
Ferrari recently introduced three sets of upgrades, all focused on improving the capability of the car by making the floor - the most efficient downforce producer - work harder.
The aim has been to steer more significant amounts of good quality (non-turbulent) airflow under the floor from the front to the rear and reduce the reliance on downforce from the rear wing, which creates more car-slowing drag.
In Sochi, the team introduced a revised rear-wing endplate but, more crucially, added changes to the front, with a revised set of ribs in the under-nose cape and changes to the bargeboards to encourage the airflow through its wide nose.
At the Nürburgring, additional changes were made to the floor and bargeboards but it was not until Portimão, where they added the new rear diffuser, that the real potential of the entire package could be seen.
The diffuser - a set of widening tunnels at the rear of the car - is designed to draw in the air and accelerate it under the floor. With the front-end changes the new diffuser aimed to pull more air at a faster speed to create more downforce.
So how much do they really need to improve?
It’s tight in the midfield, and Ferrari’s sights are firmly set on Renault, McLaren and Racing Point in front. Thanks to the early season podiums, they could jump their rivals simply by drawing level with them.
So, in five races, they need to close a 27-point gap to fifth, 31 to clinch fourth and 33 to claim third.
If the improvements can deliver just a few tenths of a second, that could be all it needs. Grid positions are decided by less, and while Leclerc excels at racing through the pack, a clean track ahead has always been what Vettel prefers.
In the three races before Portugal, Racing Point and Renault averaged 12 points a race, while McLaren and Ferrari averaged six. That flipped for last time out, with Ferrari taking 13 points, McLaren eight and Racing Point and Renault six.
Even a six-point gain on its rivals in the next five races, however, will only net them 30 points, so it’s going to be tight.
Whatever happens, though, it’s more important to look at the big picture. With rules relatively fixed for next year, if the improvements can get them back to where they were at the start of the year, it is something to build on.
And although it might not come this season, with Carlos Sainz on his way, a Ferrari firing on all cylinders could soon be back to where it belongs.
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