Ferrari is back. That was the overwhelming feeling as the Italian national anthem rung out from the podium at the Bahrain Grand Prix, the first race of this all-new era of F1.
The victorious Charles Leclerc and runner-up teammate Carlos Sainz towered over the thronging masses of Ferrari mechanics below as they belted out motorsport’s unofficial theme song. They hadn’t had a chance to sing it for a red-car victory since Sept 2019 in Singapore, but now the pent-up frustration of two wasted years was finally allowed escape into the warm Bahraini night.
The world’s most famous racing team has been through the ringer since that last victory. That too was a one-two result, with Sebastian Vettel leading Leclerc home to complete a rare run of three straight victories.
What Ferrari couldn’t have known then was that Singapore would be its last win until this weekend. The Scuderia was about to step into a world of pain.
Its 2019 victory streak had been powered by a suspiciously potent new motor, which at the end of the year the FIA banned for reasons undisclosed. In 2020 its newly legal engine was badly underpowered, and with a lumbering jolt the team plummeted from potential title contenders to a lowly sixth in the standings. It was a devastating blow for Ferrari, long prone to negative spirals.
Weighing down the atmosphere was Vettel, who the team had knifed in favour of Sainz over the off-season but who had one more year on his contract. Now a marriage of convenience, team and driver struggled through Ferrari’s worst season since 1980 counting down the seconds until separation.
In that context little was expected for 2021 other than the perpetuation of a new barren spell. But just as the sport was about to be reset itself for 2022, so too was Ferrari.
The team broke with its reflexive traditions and instead wrote off 2021 in advance. It committed its full resource to this year’s all-new car, built to the biggest change in regulations in generations, in the hope its work might compound itself to drag the team back to the top.
The car it launched earlier this year was unique - a wide, low-bodied and heavily sculpted machine. It was far removed from the super-slim design fielded by Mercedes, the dominant force for nearly a decade, but team principal Mattia Binotto backed his team to deliver.
And now here we are. Pole, fastest lap, race victory, one-two finish. The Italian back on the podium.“I’m incredibly happy after the last two years that have been very difficult for the team,” Leclerc said. “To finally prove that all the work that we’ve done in the past two years is paying off feels amazing.”
This is a notably different Ferrari from the one that roiled its way through the previous decade. High championship finishes up to 2019 glossed over how sporadically competitive the team had been and made it easy to ignore the problems that ultimately left it falling short against Mercedes.
There had been too much pressure from upper management, too much agitation for immediate results and sweeping changes when they didn’t come, and too much focus on the opposition and not enough on itself.
But management has been renewed, and Mattia Binotto, an increasingly rare engineer turned team principal, has instilled in Ferrari a crucial sense of calm. Over the last 18 months the team has been honed to be hungry for success rather than afraid of failure, and the progress is clear. Its pits tops are better, its strategies are sharper and even late last year its car became quicker. And finally it’s back at the top of the podium.
It still has questions to answer to transition from race winner to title challenger against the battle-hardened Red Bull Racing, but after the comprehensive validation of the Bahrain GP, there’s no doubt Ferrari is back.