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Under-pressure Ferrari facing up to crucial 2018 season

Italy’s recent elections resulted in the same thing that most Italian elections lead to: uncertainty. No party won an outright majority, leaving them to build a coalition.

This itself was not a surprise. Italy is used to being governed by coalitions, which often prove successful at first but have a habit of fracturing when things begin to go wrong. That is why Italy is currently looking for its fifth Prime Minister since 2011.

What has any of this got to do with Formula 1? Clearly if we’re talking Italy and fragile political situations, the subject is going to be Ferrari.

Italy’s political complexities provide a neat analogy for the country’s representatives in Formula 1, a team that seems so fond of politics that it's a wonder they didn’t put up candidates in this month’s election.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day Four

The Scuderia has the capacity to produce great results – witness their run of six constructors’ titles and five drivers’ championships between 1999 and 2004.

But, when faced with a sustained run of failure, there is the potential for major internal strife and ultimately a regime change. And for Ferrari, failure means anything less than bringing the world title back to Maranello.

On the face of it 2018 promises a great deal for the team. Having looked like serious challengers last year they were undone by a disastrous three-race stretch between Singapore and Japan that included a collision between the two Ferraris and multiple mechanical woes, which ultimately scuppered Sebastian Vettel’s title bid earlier than expected.

But there’s no doubt that their 2017 car was fundamentally a very fast machine. With stable rules for 2018 Ferrari should be back at the front this term, challenging Mercedes and perhaps Red Bull for the championship.

But this is not simply an ideal scenario – it is a must. If they don’t get things right this year, the Scuderia risk slipping into one of their familiar bouts of in-fighting, which are often followed by a few years trying to patch up the damage.

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F1's political beast

It is now more than a decade since Ferrari last won the drivers’ title, a stretch that can’t be justified by a team that enjoys such a privileged position in the sport.

Their historical significance guarantees Ferrari greater prize money and a more meaningful say in F1’s direction of travel than their rivals. In other words, there are no excuses.

Only once in more than six decades of Formula 1 has the Scuderia gone longer without winning the sport’s biggest prize, with Michael Schumacher’s 2000 title ending a drought that extended back to 1979.

That 21-year spell saw plenty of internal squabbles. The most significant came after Alain Prost narrowly missed out on the 1990 title. The following season did not live up to expectations and ended with the Frenchman being fired ahead of the final race.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day One

The Schumacher years changed perceptions, but old habits die hard. The team split with Kimi Raikkonen in 2009, paying the Finn out of his contract and into a sabbatical less than two years after he’d won their most recent world title.

In came Fernando Alonso – a multiple world champion with a big salary – who very nearly won the title in 2010 and 2012.

But after that second near miss the wheels began to come off. Team boss Stefano Domenicalli resigned in April 2014, long-time president and chairman Luca di Montezemolo departed in September, and Alonso completed the exodus at the season’s end.

Sergio Marchionne took the reigns as president and Maurizio Arrivabene became team boss. On the driver front they signed up Vettel – multiple world champion, big salary – who joined the re-hired Raikkonen.

In 2017 Seb became a title contender at last and has a realistic shot at another challenge this season. But, more than any other team, there is a fine line between success and failure at the Scuderia.

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A crucial season

As we approach year four of the Vettel-Ferrari partnership, there is potential for another difficult situation to develop if they can’t overcome Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes.

The combination has huge potential. Seb is an exceptional driver and the team have greater resources than anyone else on the grid. When everything is working in sync they can beat all comers, something they made clear several times in 2017.

But this is also a spectacularly combustible relationship, not least because of the men at the top.

Marchionne has been vocal about his team’s need to deliver results. You could call him a straight shooter, someone who is clearly happy to call out driver errors and imperfections within the team when he sees them. This approach has worked thus far – you don’t end up running a company like Ferrari by accident.

But it has the potential to cause an almighty fallout with Vettel if 2018 does not go as planned.

Seb’s only real weakness as a grand prix driver is his temper. He is not the stereotypical calculating German behind the wheel; in fact he seems more like the archetypal Mediterranean, passionate and fiery in the face of adversity.

F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day Three

When things don’t go his way Vettel is prone to visible anger and very vocal outbursts, something we have seen several times during his Ferrari career (Mexico 2016 and Azerbaijan 2017 spring to mind immediately).

Added to this Vettel is very well compensated by Ferrari. Rumours suggest that he earns around €40m a year, placing him alongside Lewis Hamilton as F1’s best-paid driver. This makes Marchionne all the more likely to speak up if results are poor.

The worrying scenario is that Ferrari’s 2018 begins badly, Vettel’s head drops – as it has before – and Marchionne begins to criticise his driver in public. That has real potential to cause a rift.

Team boss Arrivabene is also under pressure. He needs to bring a world title back to Maranello this season or he may follow predecessor Domenicali out of the team without a championship trophy.

The difference is that Domenicali was a diplomat, while Arrivabene is not cut from the same cloth. He protects his drivers, as you would expect, but he is more blunt and to the point, in the style of Marchionne.

On the face of it this is a collation of shared values. But, if it fails to produce results, the fractures may begin to show.

Vettel inked a new deal with Ferrari last year, which runs through the 2020 season. How much should we read into that? Alonso had a deal through 2016, a contract that ultimately ended two years early. Raikkonen and Prost before him also left abruptly. It’s something that happens at Ferrari.

If Vettel doesn’t at least come very close to winning the title in 2018, there’s a real chance that he could follow the same path. There have been signs from the German that he is susceptible to a breakdown in relations and, given the chance to jump into a better car – perhaps even a post-Hamilton era Mercedes – he will take it.

Red Bull took him from go-karts to four-time world champion, but he left them without much warning. Only success this season will prevent the possibility of a repeat at Ferrari.

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Prospects for 2018

Ferrari have fared well enough in testing. They managed plenty of laps – crucial at this early stage – and were always there or thereabouts at the top of the timesheets.

However there are concerns that this masks their long-run pace. There has been talk that they have slipped some distance behind Mercedes – who they were generally on a par with last year – and perhaps Red Bull too. Losing out to Vettel’s old team this season would be disastrous.

Of course, testing is not a perfect barometer for the season ahead. There are plenty of unpredictable variables that can swing championships, and Vettel has voiced doubts over just how quick the team’s rivals are. In his opinion, it won’t be until qualifying in Australia that we get any real answers.

It would be very unwise to rule out Vettel and Ferrari. The foundations for success have been laid and you have to believe that such a strong pairing will get this right eventually.

But “eventually” is not a word that exists in the Ferrari lexicon. They want results now – that is why they hire proven world champions on expensive contracts – and are unwilling to wait around for long.

Another battle between Seb and Lewis would make for a thrilling 2018 season. Throw in the Red Bull drivers and you have the makings of a classic campaign.

But if we look back to Prost in 1991 or Alonso in 2014 we can see the blueprint for a potential split. Rightly or wrongly, another year without the title might lead Ferrari to conclude that they need to go in a different direction to end their drought.

Driving for this team is comparable to success in politics – all you have to do is keep everyone happy all of the time. And for Ferrari, happiness equals world championships and nothing less.

Topics:
Ferrari
Formula 1
Kimi Raikkonen

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