The build-up to the Italian Grand Prix seems as suitable a time as any to measure Ferrari’s performance in the Formula One season, and on the face of it progress over the last 12 months has not been good.
Ahead of Monza last year, the Italian team was second in the constructors’ championship, 135 points off leaders Red Bull; Charles Leclerc was second in the drivers’ championship, 109 points off Max Verstappen; and Ferrari had four wins and 14 podiums from 15 races.
This year, Ferrari is fourth in the constructors’ championship, 339 points off Red Bull; Carlos Sainz is the Scuderia’s highest-placed driver in the standings in fifth place, 237 points off leader Verstappen; and team has scored no victories and just three podiums from 13 races.
On every results-based metric Ferrari has made a step backwards compared to where it was 12 months ago, while the end of its title drought, which stretches back to its last constructors’ victory in 2008, looks as far away as ever.
The situation recently led Leclerc to offer an extremely frank assessment of Ferrari’s chances of catching Red Bull before the next major F1 regulation change in 2026.
“That’s what we’re trying to work towards but for sure they have a really big margin and it’s going to be very difficult to catch them before the change of regulations,” he said ahead of last weekend’s Dutch Grand Prix.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Ferrari’s season is that there have been glimpses of hope. Pole positions in Azerbaijan and Belgium (albeit the latter due to a gearbox penalty for Verstappen) hint at the outright speed of the car, but the reality is that in races Ferrari has not only lost ground to Red Bull, it has also conceded relative performance to Mercedes, Aston Martin and McLaren.
As Leclerc points out, returning to a truly competitive position does not seem like a realistic short-term goal.
What’s gone wrong?
Ferrari made a solid start under F1’s new technical regulations in 2022, winning two of the first three races and securing 12 pole positions from 22 qualifying sessions last year.
Weaknesses were apparent — including reliability, in-season development and operational mistakes — and once Red Bull shed some weight from its car and unlocked its true potential, those weaknesses were brutally exposed in the second half of the year.
Over the winter, team principal Mattia Binotto was replaced by Fred Vasseur, but by that point many of the key decisions about this year’s car had already been made.
The team still went into the season confident it had addressed its weaknesses enough to challenge for the title, but within three days of preseason testing it became apparent that rivals Red Bull had made a significantly bigger step than anyone else.
Meanwhile this year’s car, the SF23, had shortfalls, most notably a tendency to destroy its tyres on heavy fuel – something that was so clear from the outside that it was visible just by looking at Ferrari’s lap times over long runs in the test.
From inside the cockpit the car was unpredictable with “peaky” performance, which was exacerbated when running in the turbulent wake of another car.
Once the season got underway, it was also clear that the car’s performance varied significantly from circuit to circuit. At the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Leclerc took pole position in both qualifying sessions (for the sprint race and also the grand prix), but a week later in Miami found himself in the wall while trying to push to the limit during qualifying.
“It’s not a secret that this year, since we were in Bahrain testing, we saw something in our car that we didn’t fully comprehend and we honestly very quickly identified what the main weakness of the car is and this we know,” Sainz said in Zandvoort.
“Then there’s other things like predicting which tracks you’re going to be better at than others. There’s the wind sensitivity, there’s the track temperature sensitivity that we have, which at the moment makes it a very peaky car, but what we want is to understand exactly the reasons for that.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job of trying and trying completely different things and having different theories that are we’re putting together for next year’s car, and hopefully next year it pays off. At the moment we can only focus on that and doing everything we can.”
What comes next?
Ferrari is not alone in falling short of Red Bull this year. Old rival Mercedes has also struggled to find an answer to the dominance of the reigning champions, finishing 2022 with some hope from a victory in Brazil only to have that hope similarly shattered in pre-season testing this year.
The teams that have made major gains in 2023, Aston Martin and McLaren, have clearly adopted some ideas from the championship leaders and made them work for themselves. Meanwhile, both Ferrari and Mercedes have stuck to design concepts that are very much their own, seemingly locking themselves in to development paths based on fundamental architectural decisions, such as chassis shape, cockpit position, suspension pick up points and gearbox length.
Ferrari’s head of aerodynamics, Enrico Cardile, insists his team understands where it has gone wrong this year and has hinted at big changes to the underpinnings of the car to unlock more performance next year.
“For us, it is crystal clear what we did wrong with the car,” Cardile said in Zandvoort. “Which are the weaknesses is clear.
“It’s not a matter of understanding what we should do. Now, for the future, it’s a matter of delivering a good product which will cope with the targets we have. So, we are not in nowhere land.
“We know what we have to do. It’s a matter of doing. It’s a matter of finding the right contents of the car, the right architecture or the car to achieve the target. The other point is this car is consistent during the race weekend in terms of behaviour, but sometimes this behaviour changes from track to track.
“In Hungary, we had a difficult time, in Belgium the performance was back. So sometimes this happens but then during the weekend if the car is consistent we can work on it.”
Lessons learned from this year’s car have been crucial to Ferrari unlocking a new development path, and while a few more updates will come to the SF23, the Maranello design office is now fully focused on 2024.
“This year has been crucial for us, to put a lot of effort on this year’s car, to better understand from where the weaknesses were coming, and how to do a better job,” Cardile said. “So we kept developing the car in the wind tunnel since the summer break. We will bring some updates in the next races but now [in the] wind tunnel we are fully focused on next year’s car.
“By developing this year’s car we realised that some architectural choices we did were not right. It was constraining the development too much.
“From there next year’s car will not be an evolution of this year’s car like this year’s car has been compared to last year’s car, but it will be a brand new car — different chassis with different design, different rear end to allow our aero [department] to better develop the car to achieve their targets.”
It all sounds positive, but Ferrari has a moving target in Red Bull. While engineers at Maranello have found dead ends with their initial development direction under the current regulations, Red Bull appears to be riding an endless highway of performance gains.
The law of diminishing returns always applies eventually when it comes to F1 development, but comments made by Red Bull’s chief car engineer Paul Monaghan in Zandvoort suggest the reigning champions’ development curve is showing no signs of stalling.
“The work on 2024 is well underway,” Monaghan said. “I suppose in the privileged position we find ourselves in, to say it’s an evolution is probably a logical conclusion.
“And there is still some effort in 2023 and that will go on for a little while. Don’t forget, there are lessons we can learn with the current car that will feed into next year.
“It would be foolish not to take such opportunities but the further we go into the flyaway races that lie ahead of us, the more emphasis will be placed on 2024 car.”
But worrying about Red Bull’s advantage won’t aid Ferrari. Team principal Vasseur recently said the team needs to make progress in every area to fight the reigning champions — a reality that is as simple to express as it is daunting to undertake.
Recruiting new people from rivals is part of that process, but with some of Vasseur’s targets unable to move to Maranello until 2025 due to contracts and gardening leaves, the improvements will likely be gradual rather than instant. Vasseur is aware of that but maintains the team can, and will, be in a better place by this time next year.
“All the processes in Formula One are quite long, with a lot of inertia, and when you want to recruit people you have to wait two or three years before you get the results of your recruitment, because some can only join the company in 18 months or even two years, so they’ll work on the car of year plus three,” he told media ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix. “But I never said and I’ll never accept that we have to wait for these guys to get an improvement because I also trust the guys we have in the team.
“We need to improve but we can also do a better job with what we have today, so we have to be focused on trying to get the best out of what we have. That’s the next challenge and I’m sure we have a lot of room for improvement, with the current situation.
“I don’t want to postpone any target, because that would be the wrong message, the wrong motivation and, at the end, it’s a never ending process because it’s not because we have three, five or ten people in the next 18 months that we’ll completely change the philosophy and the potential of the team.
“There’s no before and after, this is the life of a Formula One team, we have to improve in every single area and even when these people join the team we’ll continue to have the same approach and to have the same wish to develop, to recruit, to improve. It’s not something before and something after.”