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Ferrari's Spanish inquisition

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Expert
9th May, 2019
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We’re only four rounds deep into the season but already Ferrari’s 2019 is hanging in the balance.

The hype inflating the Scuderia’s preseason expectations was immense during winter testing. The SF90 was quick out of the box and pliable on the track. Pundits and fellow teams agreed: Ferrari was the early benchmark for 2019.

But those early days of March feel so distant as the sport embarks on the European leg of the season.

Not only has Ferrari been defeated by Mercedes at all four races so far this season, but the German marque has done so in record-breaking fashion, becoming the first team in history to record four successive one-two finishes to launch a campaign.

The results are damning: Ferrari is already 74 points adrift of the championship lead and Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc are 35 and 40 points respectively behind title leader Valtteri Bottas, both substantially more than a clear race win in arrears.

Of course the margin is somewhat misleading. Despite failing to record a win to date, the SF90 is quick, even if Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto has been forced to concede Mercedes “have got a slightly better car”.

Putting the Australian Grand Prix, the Scuderia has been at least thereabouts. Leclerc would have won in Bahrain had an engine fault not reduced his charge to a neutered third place, and the Monegasque again seemed on track to deliver the goods in Azerbaijan before his Q2 crash effectively eliminated him from podium contention.

China was the only weekend Ferrari was found genuinely lacking, and even then it was only 13 seconds behind at the chequered flag.

It’s been enough for the tifosi to keep the faith that the season could yet come back towards them, that they may yet arrive back in championship contention as promised by the preseason.

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The Spanish Grand Prix will decide whether their hope is misguided.

Ferrari driver Sebastian Vettel of Germany arrives at the track at the Formula One Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir, Bahrain, Thursday, March 28, 2019. The Bahrain Formula One Grand Prix will take place on Sunday. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

The first round of the European leg is typically regarded as a milestone in the developmental cycle, with teams electing to use the well-known Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya as a baseline for major updates, but for Ferrari the race won’t be about assessing new parts as much as it will be validating its expectations.

If Ferrari turn up in Barcelona and blitz the weekend, echoing the sort of sure-footed form demonstrated during the preseason, then the flame will keep itself alight for at least a little longer.

But if the Italians are shown up by Mercedes for a fifth successive round, put simply, Ferrari’s season and the hope of inter-team competition for the championship are as good as finished.

Just four rounds in and Ferrari is already facing a must-win race, and the team’s pulling out all stops to deliver.

“We have to catch up, which we know means that our development work will be the key to this season,” Binotto said. “Having brought a new aerodynamic package to Baku … on top of that we will have a new power unit that we are introducing ahead of schedule.

“It’s only down to a big team effort with everyone pushing hard to make up ground that we have been able to bring these developments forward.”

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The second-spec engine wasn’t due until the Canadian Grand Prix on 9 June, a race chosen by most teams owing to that circuit’s sensitivity to power. Bringing it forward by a month is no small decision.

It’s the best indicator yet of the pressure on Ferrari to finally fire. But, more than that, it’s an illustration of just how behind the eight ball the team is.

An upgraded power unit this early in the season isn’t simply the product of a redoubling of efforts; it’s an upending of a carefully designed upgrade pathway to make it to the end of the season with the limited number of engine parts permissible under the regulations, all just to keep the team’s head above water at only the fifth race.

From here on in for Ferrari the season is about catching up rather than fighting its own fight. Every point lost will be felt more keenly and pile on pressure that any victory will only momentarily ameliorate. Later in the season the reduced flexibility in its power unit cycle may begin to bite, leaving it open to greater unreliability and perhaps even engine penalties at the business end of the campaign.

But the biggest pain isn’t simply that it’s 74 points adrift; it’s that it’s 74 points adrift to Mercedes, and whether the German team remains off the ‘true’ pace suggested by preseason testing or has built itself up into a class-leading machine as the season has progressed, the five-time title winner will not be easily pushed from its place atop the championship standings.

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“Despite the good start to the season we remain quite sceptical of our own performance,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said. “We will be keeping our foot firmly to the floor.”

The cost of Ferrari’s slow start to the season will be paid by its 2019 campaign eventually. Whether the payment ultimately bankrupts its campaign will be decided this weekend.