The headline battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton has served to mask commentary on the overall progress of Ferrari this season. The 2016 Hungarian Grand Prix serves as an example of what went wrong for the team last year, and is a marker for the progress they have made this season.
Ferrari are a team that expect to win. Finishing second, or picking up a decent share of podiums isn’t the reason for them being in the sport. Their target is to win every Driver and Constructors Championship they can, to enforce their brand and be seen as the dominant force in the most prestigious form of Motor racing in the world.
In the 2016 Formula 1 season, ahead of the Hungarian Grand Prix, the team were failing to meet these objectives. Mercedes were the dominant force, and Red Bull Racing posed the biggest threat to the Silver Arrows. Before the race, the team were a point ahead of Red Bull–but out of the title fight–with Kimi the leading Scuderia driver in 4th and already 78-points adrift of Hamilton’s lead.
Qualifying for the race was a disaster by Ferrari’s standards, with Vettel only 5th with a margin of nine-tenths behind pole-sitter Nico Rosberg. Both Red Bulls out qualified Sebastian comfortably too, with a three-tenth advantage over the lap. But the real shame in qualifying was Kimi Raikkonen, who failed to get out of Q2 with 14th after Ferrari missed the window on the hot lap in rapidly drying conditions after a wet Q1. Raikkonen publicly criticised the team’s lack of tact, which was becoming a theme during the 2016 season.
For the race, Kimi’s starting position made it a race of damage limitation and he did this well, climbing the field and finishing in 6th, less than half-a-second behind Verstappen at the line. Vettel moved up a place too, finishing 4th, thirty-seconds behind the Mercedes cars and seven-tenths of a second off Ricciardo in an intense battle to the flag. The race proved to be the turning point in the battle behind Mercedes, as Red Bull overtook Ferrari in the Constructors and would never fall behind Ferrari again.
Ahead of the 2017 Hungarian Grand Prix, the story so far has been an intense fight between Mercedes and Ferrari with the difference in points coming down to each team’s second driver. Bottas has outperformed Raikkonen so far, and the general belief seems to be that Mercedes have taken a step forward and started to show an advantage over the reds.
At the British Grand Prix, both Ferraris blew up their tyres in their pursuit of Hamilton, highlighting that the Silver Arrows could be on the brink of pulling away. It could be argued that the FIA have actually caused this shift with a few tweaks in the technical regulations that have put Ferrari at a disadvantage. This goes against the common belief that the FIA favour Ferrari – the truth is that the FIA have hurt the teams title prospects by outlawing a few clever tricks featured on the SF70H.
The FIA banned oil burning after Baku and also a moveable part of the floor that Ferrari were using after Spielberg, two sanctions that have arrived around the same time as the Mercedes upsurge. Eyes will be on the floor of the Ferrari in free practice, as it’s likely the team have brought an upgrade in this area to reconcile the performance loss that the regulation tweaks have caused.
Ferrari were trotting donkeys in 2016, overshadowed entirely by Mercedes and even Red Bull in the second half of the season. In 2017, the prancing horses are back, fighting Mercedes for every point. It would be foolish to write off Sebastian Vettel at this point in the season, such is the tenacity of the driver, and Ferrari brought one of the most innovative cars to the grid at the start of the year, so the technical regulation changes that have harmed them in recent Grand Prix could easily be reversed in the second half of the season.
The 2017 regulations have brought us unpredictable racing at the front. And at this point in the season last year, who would have thought that it would be Ferrari to bring the fight to Mercedes?