"OK guys, keep your heads up. We will win the championship,” said Fernando Alonso over the radio as he crossed the Silverstone finish line to score an inglorious 14th in the British Grand Prix. “We are only halfway through the season and there is plenty of time to recover. We have a great car and we proved that to everyone this weekend. It is only the first half and we know we have to do better in the second one and we will do exactly that. Well done all of you for this weekend: whatever the result, we have done a good job. Come on! There's plenty of time to catch up.”
It sounded more like a motivational rallying cry, an attempt at preventing Ferrari morale from hitting the floor, than an objective analysis of their prospects.
The halfway point of the 2010 Formula 1 season saw Alonso lying fifth in the points table, behind all the Red Bull and McLaren drivers, with only two-thirds the points of the leader, and Ferrari was a very distant third in the constructors championship. Of the 10 races, Red Bull had won five, McLaren four, Ferrari one.
Even the 1-2 finish in Germany didn't move the game on as much as it could – not given the current points system and the fact that the next four cars past the checkers were Red Bulls and McLarens.
This wasn't how it was supposed to be. It had made a sort of simplistic sense that the pairing of arguably F1's best driver and the team that had dominated with Michael Schumacher would clear a path before it. But F1 rarely surrenders itself to simplistic notions. This isn't the same Ferrari and, arguably it isn't the same Alonso whose Renault became the Scuderia's principal rival in 2005 and '06.
The team is still early into its post-Schumacher/Jean Todt/Ross Brawn era – and it hasn't done badly. With a little luck and outside interference it won a world title in its first year and was the moral victor in 2008 (Felipe Massa was on course to win in Singapore before Renault rigged a surprise, and that would have made him World Champion for 12 months rather than 12 seconds). It wasn't the dominant force of old, perhaps, but still a formidable entity. It no longer had the rapport it once did with the FIA and that probably had an influence on its poor '09 season.The double diffuser trick that Ferrari dismissed would define the F60 as unsuited to the formula, with a mechanical layout that made a quick fix impossible. Ferrari's Luca di Montezemolo and McLaren were at loggerheads with FIA's then president Max Mosley over the sport's future, and it's hard to believe there was no political element in the decision to pass the double diffuser – which neither of those teams had – as legal.
Have a season like that and you're up against it the following year, because your development path from one season has little bearing on the next. This year's Ferrari F10 vies with McLaren's MP4-25 as the next fastest after the Red Bull – but the fast sweeps of Silverstone demonstrated again what a huge aero advantage the RB6 has, regardless of Ferrari's new “blown” floor. It will take a car conceived around this concept (next year's) to regain ground.
The question then becomes, if the F10 was as quick as the McLaren, why had it won only a quarter as many races at the halfway point? Simple bad luck, partly. Alonso hit traffic at exactly the wrong time in Montreal and the timing of the safety cars in Valencia and Silverstone couldn't have been been worse for him. In those three races, McLaren's Lewis Hamilton was first, second and second. They could have been Alonso's results.
But it's not all down to luck. Alonso might have won at Melbourne, even after spinning to the back on lap 1 – had Ferrari not been so desperate to treat its drivers equally that it chose not to tell Massa to move aside once the much quicker Alonso was on his tail. They finished third and fourth. In light of their instructions to Massa at Hockenheim to let Alonso pass for the win, that seems peculiar now.
Trusting the weather forecast in Malaysia qualifying and not sending Alonso and Felipe Massa out for a banker Q1 lap left them 19th and 21st on the grid. Choosing to have a discussion with the race director after Alonso had passed Robert Kubica by going off track at Silverstone instead of just instructing Alonso to give the place back resulted in a drive-through penalty. The law of averages says you'll get tripped by such tricky pressure calls from time to time, but the old Ross Brawn-directed team would probably have insured itself against these averages more effectively.
The F10 has a few weak points. Like almost all Ferraris of recent years, it can't always get its front tires up to temperature for the start of a qualifying lap, its engine is a little fragile and it doesn't usually find as much lap time as rival cars from the softer tire. Until it got its blown floor, it wasn't great in fast corners, either.
The McLaren has a different list of shortfalls but is operating better, making fewer mistakes than ever it made when Ferrari ruled the roost while Red Bull has a flat faster car. So, Ferrari is where it is.
Of more significance is, “Where is it heading?” Building toward a new era of dominance or beginning a slide back to the pre-Todt “Italian” days? Almost certainly, neither. It's far too structured and well-managed to fall back to the bad old ways, and yet it's difficult to see the pieces slotting into place the way they did in the previous decade. For one, the competition is much better. For another, the era of cost control has leveled the playing field in that Ferrari has no special relationship with a tire manufacturer, and the advantage of having a test track on the factory's doorstep has been largely annulled by F1's testing restrictions.
Plus, Alonso 2010-spec is not equal to Schumacher 2000-spec. Fernando is a great racing driver and has assumed the mantle of leadership within the team in a way his predecessor Kimi Raikkonen almost willfully didn't. But he's not the intensely focused, madly driven guy that Schuey was and doesn't have such a multi-dimensional appreciation of what it takes to get a team absolutely buzzing to his precise frequency.
The young, hungry Alonso of his first stint at Renault was closer to that than is the current ex-double World Champion. That guy made a solitary race day error on track in 2005 and none at all in 2006, such was the zone he was able to put himself in. This year, Alonso has turned in on Button at the first corner in Melbourne, spinning himself to the back, jumped the start in China and crashed at a crucial moment in Monaco. This is more like the driver we saw in the second Renault stint of '08-'09 – brilliant one moment, error-strewn the next. The guys at Renault will say privately that the Alonso they got back from McLaren wasn't the same guy who delivered them two titles. Their current man, Robert Kubica, is much more akin to the hungry young Spanish kid with it all to prove.
But even if Alonso is sated by success and the material benefits that follow, he is still more than capable of delivering Ferrari a world title should it give him the equipment with which to do it. It has a strong technical base which will surely only be strengthened by the recent arrival from McLaren of Pat Fry.
But can Ferrari deliver such dominant performances, year after year, in the way it did when Jean Todt sat on the pit lane wearing down his fingernails, Ross Brawn calmly called the strategy and Schumacher produced the miracle laps on demand? No. But then no one else is about to do that, either.
OVERRATED OR UNDERVALUED?
Felipe Massa's struggles add a twist of disappointment to Ferrari's year
For the guy who finished Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari career, Felipe Massa was nearly invisible this year (up until the German Grand Prix, of course!). There are many easy armchair conclusions you could arrive at to explain that. For example, it simply shows how much better Fernando Alonso is than either of them, so therefore the team was even better than it looked in 2007 and '08, or that Felipe has yet to fully recover from his serious head injury in Hungary last year.
There could be elements of truth in both those theories, but there is almost certainly more to it. If it's all about his accident, for example, then how come he was on the front row for his first race back?
One explanation is tires. Massa is less adept than Alonso at getting temperature into the fronts in a car that is reluctant to work those fronts. He often starts a qualifying lap with front tires still 70 degrees or so below the threshold at which “chemical grip” is triggered. It's more extreme when the tire spec is conservative for the track's demands. At tracks where that's not been the case (Bahrain, Monaco, Turkey, Canada), Massa has been as quick or quicker than Alonso. It's long been a Ferrari trait and it used to hurt Raikkonen more than Massa. Alonso shows there's a way around it.
However, there is also surely a vicious circle of dwindling confidence from the pattern of his season. Massa's race engineer, Rob Smedley (RIGHT, with Massa) is convinced that, had Massa arrived at Monaco this year in the same frame of mind as last, he'd have been on pole rather than the second row.
The ebbs and flows of what F1 cars and tires demand of a driver invariably favor some and penalize others and the trick to being a great is to quickly identify and adapt – much as Alonso did when he went from grippy tire-war Michelins that suited him perfectly to diametrically opposed control-tire Bridgestones.