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F1

15 May 2018

F1 2018 Driver Battles: Experience not paying off for Ferrari

F1 2018 Driver Battles: Experience not paying off for
Ferrari

Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen form the most experienced driver pairing on the grid, so why are Ferrari struggling?

(Reuters/Albert Gea)

This week, we will look at how the individual drivers in each team are performing. First up, it's Ferrari who are lagging despite having the luxury of the sport's most experienced duo in their garage.

For anyone new to F1, Ferrari's driver pairing would look like the best in the field. Five world championships between them (including the team's last one) is a statistic no other team can match. And, on the surface, this year's results show a capable and supported pair. But, things are not always quite as they seem.

It was clear from the outset in 2015 that Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen liked and respected each other. One only needs to watch how Vettel assuaged Raikkonen's downbeat mood after the 2016 Chinese GP to understand that. However, during these initial years Ferrari only threw the odd challenge at the Mercedes hybrid-era hegemony. When the factory updates and improvements brought the marque into genuine title contention for the 2017 season a switch took place - the team favoured Seb over Kimi. Slowly at first, like in Austria 2017, the suggestion Kimi was being compromised grew stronger. Now, in 2018, Ferrari are a team in conflict. 

Ferrari 

The team is in relative disarray at management level. There have been glimpses of smart strategy, like in Australia, but there have also been incredible blunders - the slow reaction to the safety car at the Chinese Grand Prix one example. More recently, in Spain, a late and seemingly unnecessary pit stop threw away two places for Vettel on a track where position is crucial. The team is presenting a unified front in response to the questions surrounding the action but there is no disguising it. 

Considering Vettel made dying tyres last when winning in Bahrain just last month, the team's claim he needed new ones at late on in Spain - while holding the significant advantage of track position - sounds hollow. This is a championship-threatening level of incompetence and worth noting because it is not a lone occurrence.

Part of their problem is the blatantly obvious favouritism. Despite his blistering speed, a rejuvenated Raikkonen has been given an inferior strategy to his teammate at every opportunity. He narrowly missed pole position in both Bahrain and Azerbaijan and has been close to Vettel at every other race. Yet, his strategy before retirement in Bahrain was questionable and his desire to change tyres was loud in China, many laps before the team finally called him in. Vettel faces no such obstacles, routinely having the team match his stated desires.

The development division of the Prancing Horse is a different story. Except for this past weekend and the season opener, Ferrari have unquestionably been the pacesetters. The car has appeared balanced and fast with neither driver reporting difficulties, in stark contrast to championship leaders Mercedes. Should more level heads prevail on the pit wall over the rest of the season and the solid development work continue, there is no reason Ferrari can't control their own destiny - both championships are there for the taking.

Qualifying head to head

Vettel     4 - 1     Raikkonen

Respective points 

Vettel     78  -  48     Raikkonen

Sebastian Vettel

Vettel should lead the driver's championship. Instead, the German sits in second place. He beat the odds with supreme driving in the first two races before multiple hiccups at the Chinese GP threw his domination off track. The following two races, Azerbaijan and Spain, were marked by either strategic or driving errors with nasty consequences. However, he is enjoying one of his best seasons as a driver in 2018. His pole in Bahrain was a stunning lap which he bettered in the race with one of his finest drives, holding off the charging Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas for the final ten laps on dead tyres.

He followed that with another fantastic pole in China and was leading the race when a combination of a successful Bottas undercut, slow Ferrari reaction and an inopportune safety car threw everything into disarray. A further shunt, courtesy of the now infamous 2018 version of Max Verstappen, dropped him down to eighth. 

In Azerbaijan, Vettel appeared to get back on track with another pole and secured the race lead, before another unfortunate safety car period handed the lead to Bottas. One can hardly blame him for the valiant but failed attempt to retake track position that ultimately dropped him to fourth. 

A fantastic move to take P2 at the start of the Spanish Grand Prix race, followed by a deft pass to keep the position, was not enough as the aforementioned strategy blunder sunk those chances.

The overall view of Vettel's season so far suggests he had victory in his hands at every race but Spain. He has displayed supreme skill and deserves to be in the discussion for the top driver up to this point. He should be demolishing the competition, yet finds himself 17 points down from a mediocre Lewis Hamilton due to factors largely beyond his control.

Kimi Raikkonen 

As mentioned earlier, Kimi does not enjoy the same level of confidence from the pit wall as his teammate. Besides facing challenges within the strategy department, he has had to deal with aggressiveness from Vettel at the Chinese GP start, a race-ending loose wheel nut in Bahrain and a fatal power issue in Spain. That he is still fourth in the championship is thanks to his legitimate pace, determination and a little luck. A clash in Azerbaijan dropped him down the order, yet he still recovered to finish second. The late strategy decision in China actually worked in his favour, as it somewhat neutralised the safety car factor and he finished on the podium. Even facing the poor strategy calls, with a likely third in Bahrain and fifth in Spain, Raikkonen could be sat on 73 points, just five points from Vettel and 22 points adrift of Hamilton - also within striking distance for the championship. 

Prediction for 2018

The Ferrari car is fast, perhaps the fastest on the grid. The reliability and pit problems, which killed two of Raikkonen's races, will probably be minimal factors over the course of the season. However, the decision making from above is more worrying. 

In contrast to his teammate, the prioritising may work out for Vettel. He has a championship calibre car in his hands and, although his famous red mist is alive and well, his elite speed and race craft may be enough to carry the SF71H to the top. 

If the pit wall could stop thinking the championship will be decided tomorrow and capitalise on their formidable pilots, it could be a successful year for Ferrari.

How do you rate Ferrari's performance this year? Are they handling their driver pairing well? Let us know in the comments below.