This stop on Frontstretch’s Formula 1 season review brings us to what may have been the biggest build-up and letdown of the entire season, Ferrari. The previous two years had been difficult. The 2016 season was a fall from form with no wins, followed by a return to respectability in 2017 when they earned five wins but were nowhere near the championship against Mercedes was a big confidence booster for the squad out of Maranello. The 2018 season looked to be the year of even more progress, enough to make them title real contenders that bring the fight all the way to the final race for the first time since 2012.
That expectation is exactly how the season started for the Prancing Horse. Sebastian Vettel won the first two races of the season on beautiful drives, and his teammate Kimi Raikkonen was on the podium in Australia, but a wheel problem forced Kimi out in Bahrain after the Fin started each race on the front row. In fact, Ferrari started on the front row in six of the first seven races.
as The pace was very much there for Ferrari, Vettel dominated in Montreal leading every single lap, something that not many non-Mercedes cars have done in the hybrid era, it seemed as if the tide had turned. Ferrari had become not only the fastest car but the fastest engine in the paddock, surpassing what seemed to be an unstoppable Mercedes engine. The team adopted a twin battery and innovative Energy Recovery Systems that took the paddock by storm and wonder. There were concerns over the legality of said systems, but Ferrari passed every FIA test brought their way. Lewis Hamilton seemed stunned at another car’s pace for the first time in the hybrid era, which showed when Vettel stole the British Grand Prix with a late race overtake on Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas.
Everything was going Ferrari’s way through the first half of the season, Vettel led the Drivers title, and Ferrari was sniffing a Constructors title. Then came the German Grand Prix. Things seemed to be going somewhat smoothly for Vettel;he was on pole, but the team needed to use team orders with Raikkonen to let Vettel by, ala Germany 2010 with Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso, but as rain began to fall, Vettel lost control of his car and went off the track into the barriers. What looked like an easy win and seven points gained with Hamilton in second, turned into a 25 point loss with Hamilton winning the race from 14th on the grid.
Then Hamilton won in Hungary and Ferrari had questions to answer during the summer break, but overall it was a strong first half, not only was Vettel in the title chase, but Raikkonen was very much on form with podium finishes in eight of the 12 races before the summer break. If Vettel were to somehow not win the title, Ferrari seemed poised to at least grab the first non-Mercedes Constructors title in the Hybrid era with the consistency they were getting from their drivers.
As the season headed to Francomcorps Spa, or the Belgian GP, it seemed as if all the questions were answered as the paddock could finally admit that Ferrari was by far the best engine on the grid. Vettel took the race, winning the race in true Vettel style, taking the lead and making it impossible for the second place car to close in. In a peculiar sense of irony, Monza is where it seemed as if Ferrari’s season began to slip away from them. Qualifying was exciting as Ferrari flexed their strength on the power reliant Monza track, where Vettel was second and Raikkonen set the fastest lap in F1 history.
However, the pole brought some questions as on the last run of qualifying each team car went out together which was because a high-speed track like Monza, there is a slipstream that can take tenths off of the trailing car’s lap time, like a draft in NASCAR. Mercedes had Bottas in front giving Hamilton the tow, you’d think that Ferrari would put their driver who had the best chance to win the Drivers title out second too so that they get the advantage.
Yet for some reason, they sent Vettel out first and Raikkonen was the one who got the advantage that gave him pole position and starting on the clean side of the track at the start. Vettel was not happy and the situation proved to be Vettel’s downfall in Monza as Raikkonen kept the lead through the first chicane, and a bold move by Hamilton to take second from Vettel led to contact, sending Vettel spinning to last place, losing a slew of potential points. Raikkonen led most of the race but could not manage the gap to Hamilton and his tires and eventually was overtaken by the Mercedes and finished second. What could have been a double Ferrari podium and a potential win for Vettel turned into a second a fourth-place finish. They showed a major lack in pace in Singapore, Russia, and Suzuka, along with Vettel’s third spin of the season.
By the time F1 moved to the United States, the poor second-half of the season performance had Hamilton in position to win the drivers title with some luck. Both titles were slipping from the fingers of Ferrari in the form of failed aero updates and numerous Vettel spins. Austin was a weird race for Ferrari, Raikkonen was second on the grid after Vettel received a three-place grid penalty for speeding under yellow flag conditions in Friday practice. A strong car and strategy got Kimi his first win since Australia 2013 and his first with Ferrari since 2009. Vettel had yet another spin on the first lap but battled back to fourth to push what seemed to be a decided title fight to Mexico – which Hamilton eventually won.
Two uninspired performances in Brazil and Abu Dhabi left Ferrari second in the Constructors, with Vettel and Raikkonen finishing second and third in the Driver’s standings respectively. Kimi Raikkonen did steal the show at the Prize Giving Ceremonies with his intoxicated antics, but overall, what looked to be an incredible title-winning season through the first 12 races turned into a disappointing second place by season’s end.
As mentioned before, Ferrari’s power unit made them easily the fastest car on the straights for the first time since arguably the Schumacher days. The car was the best it has ever been in the hybrid era and they had Mercedes on the back foot for most of the spring and first couple of races out of the summer break. The drivers were also driving with consistency. Vettel had five wins after Spa, and both drivers each had 12 podiums on the season. When Vettel leads a race, it is very difficult for any driver, even Lewis Hamilton to catch him, and with the package that Ferrari gave Vettel, he could cruise to safe victories. On their good weekends, both drivers did what they needed to get Ferrari their first Constructors title since 2008. If the team can keep the improved performance going into 2019 with the package and less mistakes, the future is very bright for Ferrari regaining their 2000’s form.
Too many mistakes on race day. Sebastian Vettel wanted to be a Ferrari driver for most of his life, and with a drive for Ferrari, comes the pressure to perform. There were points this season where that pressure became too much for the four-time champion. He lost control while leading in Germany on a wet track. He pushed the issue in Monza and drifted into Hamilton in the second chicane. He did the same while trying to pass Max Verstappen for third early in Japan, leading to a spin, same goes for his spin in Austin. Along with his spin in China, which was, Verstappen’s fault, Vettel was doing a 360 way too many times for a championship contender. He lost loads of points on those spins that could have at least pushed the title to race to Brazil if not Abu Dhabi.
The drivers weren’t the only ones feeling the pressure, but so did the strategy team for Ferrari. There were multiple points during the final stretch of 2018 that left Ferrari fans scratching their heads. The move to put Vettel in front of Raikkonen in Q3 at Monza, choosing the wrong tires in Singapore, going out of Q3 in Japan on intermediate tires on a dry track, only to have it rain later on giving them no chance to set a hot lap in Q3 on dry tires while the track was at its fastest. Those moves and few others were killers for Ferrari in their races towards the end of the season. Part of winning the title is making the right calls at the right time, and Ferrari did not do that in 2018.
As mentioned before, if Ferrari can continue their upward trend from 2017 and 2018 to 2019 there is a lot of promise for the Prancing Horse. They can continue to develop an engine that can compete with Mercedes, but a massive change in front wing regulations for 2019 makes aerodynamics a major question for all teams in 2019. If Ferrari can develop a strong front wing, it would be a step in the right direction.
And then there is driver shake-up, as Charles Leclerc replaces Kimi Raikkonen alongside Vettel. Leclerc impressed massively while racing for Alfa-Romeo Sauber in 2018. His strong races in Formula 2 and development in an F1 car thus far has Ferrari fans foaming at the mouth to watch the young driver from Monaco take the reigns of a title contending Ferrari. How will this impact the driver management that Ferrari is known for? If Leclerc bursts out of the gates as well as Vettel, will Ferrari let the two battle it out if it comes down to a late race run where the trailing car is faster than the lead car? If both drivers are in the title hunt in 2019, I can’t image we will hear a “Sebastian [or Charles] is faster than you” situation. How will Sebastian handle potentially not being the stand-out number one driver like his first four seasons with Ferrari? Will we see a 2014-esq melt down? Or will we see Vettel rise to the challenge and show Leclerc why the former is a four-time world champion?
As you see, there are many questions surrounding the two drivers coming into 2019. Vettel also comes into the 2019 coming off of what can be called a choke job in 2018, even though the car lost pace and there was not much he could do in Singapore and Russia. But he could have garnered enough points without the spins to make those races not matter too much. Will Vettel put even more pressure on himself to perform? Or has he gone through the ringer and will come into 2019 refreshed as he did stepping into the RB6 in 2010?
All in all, what started as a successful season in 2018 ended as a disappointing re-run of the end of 2017. However a faster car is a big step up, and if they can keep pace through the 2019 aero regulation change, manage their two fast drivers, and stay away from mistakes both on track and on the pit-wall, Ferrari will be a title contender yet again in 2019.