Ferrari has endured a nightmare September. After being trounced by Mercedes at Monza, the first-lap clash in Singapore between Ferrari duo Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen and Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, marked the first time in Formula 1 history that both Ferrari’s have been eliminated from a Grand Prix on the opening lap.
In Malaysia, the Scuderia seemed to be out of the woods. Friday saw Vettel and Raikkonen top the timesheets, while also posting impressive times during long runs. It seemed certain that Vettel would seize pole position and reduce his points arrears with a win on Sunday. A turbo fault in FP3 before power unit gremlins in qualifying served to derail his weekend by condemning him to the back of the grid.
In the meantime, victories in Italy and Singapore – followed by a second place finish in Malaysia – have allowed Lewis Hamilton to steal a march towards the 2017 drivers’ championship title. He now leads Vettel by 34 points with a maximum 125 points still up for grabs.
September has been bleak for Ferrari. However, positives have emerged from the gloom and Vettel can still enter the final five races with an air of optimism regarding his title aspirations.
Ferrari’s pace in Singapore – and Mercedes’ lack of speed in qualifying – was to be anticipated. Vettel and Raikkonen’s imperious form at Monaco foreshadowed Ferrari’s form for Singapore. The script read a Vettel victory and a nightmare evening of mediocrity for Hamilton. How wrong that script would prove to be.
Malaysia was meant to be a more competitive contest. With Italy and Singapore playing to Mercedes and Ferrari’s respective strengths, the Sepang International Circuit’s thrilling combination of high and low-speed corners coupled by long straights promised to test overall car performance. The results left Mercedes scratching their heads.
Hamilton may have notched his 70th career pole on Saturday, but he was far from comfortable. Raikkonen qualified a slender 0.045 seconds adrift in second, leading many to note that had Vettel made it into the final part of qualifying with a healthy car, he would have nabbed top honours.
Then came the race, which served to highlight that Mercedes had failed to address the issues that compromised their long run pace on Friday. Hamilton was passed by a charging Max Verstappen early on and had no answer to the Red Bull’s blistering pace. Seven points conceded, albeit a second place finish and six points gained on fourth-placed Vettel.
However, the mere fact that a super-soft-shod Vettel was considered to be a threat to Hamilton by Mercedes in the closing stages of the race, served to demonstrate the superiority of Ferrari’s pace. This was a second consecutive race which Vettel would have won at a canter had he evaded drama.
Mercedes seemed all-at-sea. The upgrade package brought to Malaysia appeared to under-deliver. The split programme that Mercedes ran in FP2 – with Valtteri Bottas running the latest upgrades and Hamilton piloting the old-spec – continued into the business-end of the weekend as an answer as to which was the faster option was unobtainable.
It is not the first time in 2017 that pace has mysteriously alluded Mercedes. They suffered a similarly confusing weekend in Monaco – after which, team boss Toto Wolff famously dubbed the team’s W08 challenger as a ‘diva.’
When asked by if the confusion following last weekend was more or less significant than that which spawned from Monaco, Bottas stated that the doubts are now “even bigger. Monaco is such a unique track, and it is not so easy to get the car right there. With the different type of cars, some cars don’t really work well there.
“But on a track like this [Sepang], and for us to come here thinking that we should be quite competitive, it has been difficult. We need to understand very quickly.
“All the next races they are going to be really important. Still for us as a team, nothing has been won yet, so hopefully we can understand within a week or two – because otherwise it could be too late.”
The Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka will provide another interesting benchmark. It will be fascinating to see whether Mercedes scrap their Malaysia updates which seemed to bare correlation issues. The circuit will also prove an effective litmus test for Ferrari. If they can eclipse Mercedes’ pace in Japan, they are likely to have a pace advantage at each of the remaining five rounds in 2017, should the pace of the development race plateau.
They may not have earned the results to show for it, but from a pace perspective, Ferrari is a team in-form. Mercedes’ confusion threatens to diminish the value of Hamilton’s 34 point championship advantage.