Monday, April 27, 2009

Not Quite The Worst

The good news: Raikkonen brings his Ferrari home 6th, bagging three points. This averts the "worst start to a Ferrari F1 season in history" headlines everyone was warming up.

The bad news: well the good news isn't really that good, is it.

In a way, Ferrari is the victim of the FIA's success. Through the leveling of the playing field, the grid from front to back is much, much closer than in previous years. This means that even tiny mistakes at critical moments will have a magnified effect, as the rest of the field goes roaring past. This is seen in Ferrari's stumbling in qualifying and in some of the strategic thinking that has been happening.

The other way that Ferrari is falling behind is reliability. With the comiditization of key components -- gearboxes with restricted or no development, engines with restricted or no development over the past few years, and other areas to come -- reliability across the board is up. In Bahrain, we had one non-finisher, and the rules regarding retirement are such that even no-hopers like the BMWs were compelled to continue pounding around the circuit. So with nobody falling out ahead of you, you are forced to make up positions either through strategy or through passing on the track. And it doesn't help that Ferrari's reliability is starting to fall apart, as this was the third out of four races where Massa had a technical problem ("mechanical issues" in Australia, engine issues in China, and now KERS issue in Bahrain).

These issues put sharp focus on the problem of the car's obvious lack of pace. One could argue that McLaren has improved their car to rough parity with the Ferrari, or perhaps even slightly better. Other teams have similarly improved. At the beginning of the season, one expected the Toyotas to be dicing with the front runners -- and with the exception of the all-conquering Brawns, they are.

This season is shaping up to be one of the worst since the early 90s or even earlier. This is what I expected to happen after Schumacher's retirement -- the braintrust that Schumacher gathered around him has moved on, and the replacements are not capable of having the team perform at the same level. The same thing happened after the palace intrigues of 1991, where a wholesale change in team members resulted in several years of poor performance.

Team management needs to look very closely at what has happened this year and decide if it is an aberration, if the team is really capable of competing with these team members in this rules environment, or if changes need to be made.

2009 doesn't need to be a write-off, but we must still keep our eyes on the future.