Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A wobbly start...

It was an inauspicious beginning to what many are calling a new era at Ferrari. One of the most impressive aspects of the Scuderia's performance over the past few years is that their continuing success has been achieved against a backdrop of change, as the key architects of their recent unprecedented run of success one by one began to move on. Having effortlessly absorbed the departures of Rory Byrne, Nigel Stepney, Ross Brawn and Michael Schumacher, Ferrari faced up to one final change over the winter. The Australian Grand Prix was the first since Magny-Cours 1993 not to be overseen by the diminutive, fastidious, some say Napoleonic presence of Jean Todt - the man who brought together and moulded Ferrari's 'super-team' in the first place. Let us not forget that the Scuderia were on their knees when Todt was appointed, a shadow of their former greatness and that no-one, simply no-one, could have predicted the extent to which he would reforge them and return them to the very front-line of Formula One competition.

It was indeed a shaky start for Stefano Domenicali, recently promoted from his role as Sporting Director to fill Todt's literally small and metaphorically large shoes. However, before we get too carried away with this talk of
sea-changes and eras ending and beginning, let us not forget quite how long Domenicali has been groomed for his current position, and think instead of the incredible continuity that Messrs Todt, Brawn and company embedded in the once chaotic Italian team. Domenicali has been with Ferrari in one way, shape or form since 1991, initially responsible for internal administrative issues, gradually working his way through a number of high-profile positions within the team, before reaching his current role. Domenicali is not some wide-eyed newcomer, but the result of a system that has been developed over the last 15 years to nurture a real strength in depth. What is more, he has Ferrari in his bloodstream. You can count on it that somewhere within the Ferrari hierarchy Domenicali's eventual replacement is lurking, learning his trade.

Others have speculated whether or not the operational errors that hampered performance this weekend would have occurred with Todt at the helm. Would, for example, Raikkonen have been sent out in qualifying with a miscalibrated fuel pump? And, just as crucially, would he have bizarrely been left out on track during the second saftey car, missing a perfect opportunity to use a free pit-stop to move him up the order? It is easy to join the dots a certain way and produce such a picture. But let's not forget that whilst Domenicali is the Team Prinicipal and that the buck stops with him, the man responsible for 'trackside operations', including all technical issues and race strategy, is Luca Baldisseri, who filled that same role last season, after years of preparation under the tutelage of Ross Brawn. Baldisseri is good, no question, but there have been a couple of wobbles under pressure since he stepped up to the plate - the confusion in Fuji which saw Raikonnen start on the wet tyres springs to mind as an example, as does Massa being left high and dry in qualifying at the Hungaroring without enough fuel in the car. You'd still say that he calls it right more often than he calls it wrong and you'd have to add that following in the footsteps of Brawn is a tough comparison for anyone.

I'd fall a long way short of calling this a team in crisis.

However, it is a world championship winning team with a few problems to iron out if it is going to maximise its undoubted potential in the early part of this season. Having spent a winter pounding around the test circuits of the world, posting lap-times that sent collective shivers down the spines of their opponents, Ferrari were confidently expected to control the Australian Grand Prix weekend from the very beginning. It didn't work out that way. They lost their way with set-up from Friday afternoon and never really recovered - Raikonnen in particular being unhappy with the balance of the car. Most worrying, of course, are the reliability problems that suddenly seemed to appear out of nowhere, after a winter of faultless running. Not only did engine problems halt Raikonnen and Massa's Sunday afternoon drives, but that of Sebastien Bourdais, in the similarly powered Toro Rosso. That has to be a concern. In response to this Ferrari have flown the engines back to Maranello in order to properly isolate the cause of the failures. They will have fresh, replacement engines in Malaysia, where they will hope that a solution has been found. And, once again, before we talk of a team in crisis, let's remember that Ferrari's engines were not bullet-proof last year and that, of all teams, they have the resources to solve these issues quickly.

Finally, what of the drivers?

Kimi was relaxed, calm and totally confident in the run-up to Australia - he seemed to exude an air that said that when the games commenced, he would be the man to beat. Was it this thwarted expectation - the frustration of being unable to get the car to work to his liking, coupled to the disappointment of qualifying, added to the difficulties of the race itself that led him to make the two high-profile driver errors that he did? I'd say that it was, and I wouldn't bank on Kimi having too many weekends like this in the season to come. A blip, rather than the beginning of a trend.

Felipe Massa came to Melbourne off the back of a slightly troubling winter for those who have observed closely. From the minute they began running without traction control he has struggled to come to terms with it, having a number of spins and 'offs'. Massa, who has improved enormously in recent seasons, finished 2007 looking like a well-rounded and quick championship contender - a surprise indeed to those who remember him as a wayward, erratic and sometimes downright terrifying novice in his early days at Sauber. By contrast, his performance across the three days in Melbourne was skittish and inconsistent. The onboard footage clearly showed a tension in his driving, and reactive, over-compensative steering inputs. The body language of the car out on the circuit was similar. Despite that, he was quick enough and qualified well, raising hopes of a good, strong race. This didn't last longer than the first corner, where Massa seemed, in the heat of the moment, to completely forget that traction control no longer restrained his right foot, and oversteered into a spin before the season was even 30 seconds old. As he fought his way back through the field there was an edge of desperation and jerkiness to his driving which, regardless of whose fault it actually was, no doubt contributed to his collision with Coulthard. For Massa's sake, I hope he bounces back - he is one of F1's good guys, a hard worker, a tremendous competitor, and a real character - but it seems that, on the back of this performance, he is one of the drivers who is truly not comfortable in a Grand Prix car devoid of traction control. If it is indeed that case that Massa fills the role of Schumacher's protégé and that he has, in the past, benefited from the advice and coaching of the seven-times world champion, I would imagine that he has already punched Michael up on speed-dial.

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