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The Fall of Ferrari

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When you are that high up off the ground, it is a long fall to the bottom. It seemed an even bigger fall from grace for Ferrari, as scandal and controversy surrounded the iconic Italian team in the latter stages of 2019. The 2020 season for the Scuderia was more than disappointing. It was embarassing. They suffered one of their worst performances in a decade, but what caused Ferrari to come tumbling down?

The hybrid era has been dominated by one team.-Mercedes. Going from a 2.4 litre V8 sweet sounding engine to a 1.6 litre V6 power unit that sounds like a hair dryer compared to it’s predecessor, along with a battery and an engine recovery system made the cars more efficient. The current hybrid engines are complicated, by using two hybrid systems and a V6 combustion engine. The latter part of the power unit is what has proved difficult for the teams to get right.  Not all the teams got it right straight away, but Mercedes managed to jump straight into this new era with confidence. Ferrari had a shaky start, finishing the 2014 season 4th in the constructors standings. They improved as the era moved on, consistently second behind the Silver Arrows.

But last year they ended the season sixth. It was their first time finishing out of the top 4 since 1981. A nightmare for Ferrari fans.

Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto is overseeing the team's worst performance run in a decade

So what was the catalyst for this dramatic downturn in performance? The timeline of events is both scandalous and controversial, and it is no wonder that some Formula One fans believe that there is favouritism in the sport.

I can take you back to the summer of 2018, when Mercedes and Red Bull started to speculate on illegal methods of power unit performance. The Ferrari car had a sudden acceleration of performance, some say an increase of 38 horsepower. There was chatter in the paddock and within the FIA head quarters that the Ferrari power unit was not legal. The FIA reportedly fitted a sensor to monitor the energy output, something which then Race Director Charlie Whiting denied. But it fuelled rumours that the FIA knew what Ferrari were doing and were allowing it.

One year on, despite Mercedes dominating the first eight races of the season, Ferrari had a sudden surge of performance, causing Renault to join in on the speculation. The French team claimed it was “surprised” with the level of performance achieved by Ferrari. Charles Leclerc secured his maiden F1 victory in Spa, the first for Ferrari in 2019. He won again in Monza. His team mate Sebastian Vettel clinched the third consecutive win for the team at Singapore. It was at this point that Christian Horner, team boss of Red Bull, submitted queries to the FIA, and Toto Wolff, team boss at Mercedes, suggested that Ferrari were operating a surge of 50bhp in a straight line.

This once great institution is in a sorry state and is not close to being competitive in Formula 1

Winning three consecutive races is not unusual of course. It was the fact that it was a sudden change of form from Ferrari when there weren’t many upgrades or aerodynamic changes to the car. Something was definitely going on, but nobody knew what.

The United States Grand Prix in 2019 was a key moment in this story. The FIA released a technical directive regarding fuel sensors. It stated that any tactics centered around the fuel sensor to “trick” it, were deemed illegal. And all of a sudden, Ferrari’s straight line speed vanished. The power advantage that Ferrari had was so clear that the teams were quick to join the dots, and a month later, the FIA announced it had seized the Ferrari power unit to analyse it. To make matters worse for the Italian squad, a fuel weight discrepancy was found on Leclerc’s car before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Ferrari were fined 50,000 euros and the saga continued into 2020.

2021 Technical Regulation Changes: Explained

During winter testing in February of last year, the FIA released a statement that said that a settlement was reached between the FIA and Ferrari relating to the power unit. The details were kept confidential which prompted all of the non-Ferrari teams to launch an attack on the FIA, threatening legal action. They believed that the FIA were not being transparent regarding the settlement with many believing that they were protecting Ferrari. The FIA released a statement the following day stating that they were within their legal rights to reach a confidential settlement, they were not fully comfortable with the manner in which Ferrari operated it’s power unit in 2019.

Cue the suggestions of “cheating” on Ferrari’s part, and the fact that the FIA were not harsh enough in penalising the Scuderia. No matter what punishment you think Ferrari should have received, I don’t think any handed out by the FIA would have been as harsh as their downfall in 2020. Their qualifying performance, their race pace and their overall straight line speed had dramatically fallen. It was almost sad to watch, but at the same time, reinforced the notion that Ferrari had been cheating.

But how?

As the 2019 season entered its closing stages, we started to see two theories evolve. The first was that Ferrari were using a “controlled leak” to provide a temporary power boost by allowing oil to enter the combustion process. The second theory was that Ferrari had management to briefly exceed the 100kg/h fuel flow rate limit between the points where FIA measurements were taken. The extra fuel getting to the engine could then be used for more power.

Their first race of 2020, at the Red Bull Ring in Austria, saw them lose 0.9 seconds to the pole position time of Valtteri Bottas. They were 0.3 seconds slower than Lando Norris in his McLaren. Their qualifying deficit compared to 2019 was 1.4% worse off. We had no explanation from Ferrari on why it’s power unit, one of the best in the hybrid era, was all of a sudden so bad. They were now a midfield team in terms of performance. Their team principal, Mattia Binotto, tried to brush it aside by stating that they should not be comparing their performance in 2020 to that of 2019, but to be looking at their rivals. I honestly don’t know what was worse to look at.

Formula 1: Ferrari engine investigation sparks 'anger' from rivals - BBC Sport

The Italian media, always huge supporters of Ferrari, were branding their 2020 efforts as a disaster. Not only did they not have a competitive car, they had a four time world champion who was not getting the best out of the car. They also had two customer teams who could out perform them on occasion. That is inexcusable. The woes at Ferrari might have run deeper than the power unit scandal, but the fact remains that the most iconic team in the sport cheated.

The situation at Ferrari is now critical. Now that the new regulations have been delayed until next year due to the global pandemic, there are minimal chassis changes this year. Ferrari have conceded that they will need to bite the bullet in 2021, and are not expecting much of a difference in performance this year. Are they banking too much on the 2022 regulations?

 

Image Credit: Getty Images/formulaone.com

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