Back home at Monza, Ferrari confronts the reality of its path back to F1 glory


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When the gates in front of the grandstands open minutes after the end of Formula One’s Italian Grand Prix, thousands of fans begin their rush onto the main straight at the Autodromo Nazionale Monza.

Unlike other tracks, where the podium sits above the garages, Monza has a bridge connecting the podium to a prime spot above the pit lane, allowing fans to get closer to the drivers and stand in the shadow of the race winners. With flags aloft and flares going off, the crowd bursts into celebration and color.

That color is red.

Ferrari’s loyal fandom, known as the tifosi, make pilgrimages to tracks around the world with unmatched fervor. But they especially crave the sight of one of their drivers on the top step of the podium at Monza, to sing loud the Italian national anthem after a Scuderia victory. As the only team to have competed in every F1 season since the formation of the world championship in 1950, it holds a special place in the history of the series. In many ways, Ferrari embodies F1.

But recent history at Monza has left the tifosi disappointed. Ferrari has just one Italian Grand Prix victory in the past decade — Charles Leclerc’s 2019 win — and only two in the 16 years since the team’s last drivers’ championship in 2007.

Ferrari’s homecoming is always a big moment in its season. It will celebrate the occasion this year with a tweaked livery and race suits, incorporating more of its second color, yellow, and retro helmet designs for Leclerc and teammate Carlos Sainz.

Yet the prospect of either driver giving the tifosi the victory they dream of this weekend looks remote. 2023 has been a sobering and largely confusing year for Ferrari, which has regressed in its bid to end its championship drought.

“It’s clear that in every single topic and every single pillar of the performance, we have to make a step forward,” Fred Vasseur, Ferrari’s team principal, said last week.

Stepping backward

This was meant to be the season Ferrari finally mounted a serious bid for the championship after so many near misses.

Last season started with so much promise. After three races, Leclerc had won twice and led the championship by 34 points. He was 46 points clear of eventual champion Max Verstappen, who claimed to have doubts about recovering from such a deficit. At the halfway point of the season, a Leclerc title bid seemed possible. But as Red Bull developed its RB18 car, Ferrari struggled to keep up. Sainz’s British GP victory in July was the team’s last.

Changes followed. Team principal Mattia Binotto (a Ferrari lifer who ascended to the role of team principal in 2019) was replaced by Alfa Romeo team boss Vasseur. After studying where things went wrong through the back half of 2022, Ferrari hoped to come out strong, fueling optimism with a February unveiling of the SF-23 car in front of the official Ferrari fan club.

“In every single topic and every single pillar of the performance, we have to make a step forward,” said Fred Vasseur, Ferrari team principal. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The reality of Ferrari’s true pace became clear in pre-season testing. Not only had Red Bull made a big stride forward, but so had Aston Martin. Ferrari and Mercedes were left mired in the battle to be second- or third-quickest. Like last year, the car has shown good potential over a single lap in qualifying but struggles over the race day distances.

This year’s high points, like Leclerc’s sprint and grand prix poles in Baku and his podium in Austria, have been offset by trickier races – like Miami, where Leclerc crashed in qualifying, and last week at Zandvoort, where the Ferrari wasn’t even a top-five car.

“When I look at the first part of the season, we missed too many opportunities,” Vasseur said. “It means we have to do a better job on this one to be much more opportunistic in the second part of the season.” He added it would take “something a bit special” to catch Mercedes for P2 in the championship, the gap now standing at 54 points (and with Aston Martin in between them).

Yet second won’t satisfy the tifosi. Only first will do.

The long road to recovery

The Ferrari car’s big weakness is inconsistency. Even with the change in sidepod design as part of a major update package that arrived in Spain, the SF-23 has been particularly peaky. Sainz and Leclerc noted how the car could feel totally different even between tire compounds in a race. The unpredictability can yield good results: Ferrari expected to be weak at Spa, but Leclerc converted pole (inherited after a Verstappen penalty) into a comfortable third-place finish.

Then there have been the operational slip-ups. Ferrari’s approach to strategy has been regularly in the spotlight for years. Ahead of this season, strategy chief Iñaki Rueda was moved into a factory role. Yet 2023 has featured moments of confusion or frustration, particularly on Leclerc’s side of the garage, as tense exchanges have played out over the team radio.

The radio calls to both Ferrari drivers have become regular meme fodder. Verstappen even appeared to make a reference to Ferrari’s radio messages with a jokey answer after the Hungarian Grand Prix, quipping: “Plan… F!” to Lando Norris with the same intonation as Leclerc’s race engineer, Xavier Marcos Padros. While the lettered system is carefully planned, the Ferrari radio exchanges do not paint a picture of confidence in the same focused fashion of a Red Bull or Mercedes.

On the car side, Ferrari is already planning a big overhaul for next year. The new car “will be very different because developing this year’s car, we realized that some architectural choices we made were not right,” Enrico Cardile, Ferrari’s head of chassis, said at Zandvoort. “It was constraining the development too much.

“Next year’s car will not be an evolution like this year’s car has been compared to last year’s car, but it will be a brand new car – different chassis with different design, different rear end to allow our aero [department] to better develop the car to achieve their targets.”

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2023 high points like Leclerc’s podium in Austria have been offset by trickier races. (Eric Alonso/Getty Images)

Vasseur has been clear he sees Ferrari’s turnaround as a long-term project. He has overseen a recruitment drive and teased some announcements “soon” while lamenting the “inertia” of F1 contracts that means some hires won’t join until 2024 or 2025 due to gardening leave.

But Vasseur also vowed confidence in the current group to get things right. “I don’t want to postpone any target because that would be the wrong message, the wrong motivation,” he said. “We have to improve in every single area, and even when these people will join the team, we’ll continue to have the same approach and to have the same wish to develop, to recruit, to improve. It’s not something before and something after.”

Playing the long game

Even if Ferrari can make big steps forward, the nature of Red Bull’s dominance means there is a big gap to make up. Leclerc said on Thursday at Zandvoort he thought it would be “very difficult to catch (Red Bull) before the change of regulations,” next due in 2026. If that’s the case, Ferrari’s drivers’ title drought, now at 16 years, would near the 21-year wait between Jody Scheckter’s title in 1979 and Michael Schumacher’s maiden crown for the Scuderia in 2000.

The expectant nature of both the Italian fans and the Italian press means that with every year that passes by without a serious title challenge, the pressure increases. No other F1 team carries the hopes of a nation. There is also the competitive hunger of Leclerc and Sainz that must be satisfied, particularly as both approach the final year of their contracts in 2024.

Leclerc has established himself as one of the top performers on the F1 grid, especially over a single lap. Give him a championship-quality car, and he’d surely be in the fight. He has always vowed his dream remains to win a title with Ferrari, but as he nears the end of his contract, he will be hot property on the driver market.

Leclerc said at Zandvoort that his “intentions are clear” for the future and that he was “not too worried” about talks with Ferrari. “It’s not the priority for now,” he said. “We just want to try and work as much as possible on the car to get as competitive (as possible.”

Meanwhile, recurring rumors say Sainz is on Audi’s radar for when it takes over Sauber in 2026. The team is headed up by Andreas Seidl, who worked with Sainz at McLaren in 2019 and 2020. Sainz has maintained that he wants to know his long-term future before going into the final year of his deal after he previously struggled with such uncertainty while at Renault and Toro Rosso. Vasseur said Ferrari is “aligned” with Sainz on this front, but as with Leclerc, he always said there is no need to rush talks with the drivers for 2025 and beyond.

But the drivers are one area that Ferrari does not need to consider making any changes. Realistically, there are few better line-ups on the F1 grid. To have Leclerc and Sainz sewn up for the future would give some needed stability and avoid pulling energy from the bigger fires that must be fought.

Both drivers will want to see changes and progress that give them confidence for the long term. Racing for Ferrari is an honor only a special handful of drivers experience throughout their careers. Winning for Ferrari is even rarer territory.

La pista magica

Regardless of the outcome, the Italian Grand Prix will be a celebration for Ferrari – it always is. The special livery is a nod to Ferrari’s outright win this year at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, its first since 1965. Two of the drivers, Antonio Giovinazzi and Alessandro Pier Guidi, will attend the race with the winner’s trophy — the one major bit of silverware Ferrari has bagged this year.

It’s not the trophy the tifosi truly wants. F1 is always the true marker of Ferrari’s racing success. Tens of thousands of fans will flock to Monza — la pista magica, the magic track — this weekend. All will harbor hopes that Leclerc or Sainz could give them a shock win to celebrate. All will know the likeliest outcome is a record-breaking 10th successive victory for Verstappen.

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Fans greeted Ferrari’s podium finish in 2022 with jubilation. (Dan Istitene – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images)

Monza has produced some upsets in recent years. Pierre Gasly’s win for AlphaTauri in 2020 makes Red Bull’s sister team the most recent Italian team to win on home soil, while Daniel Ricciardo scooped a surprise victory for McLaren the following year. It could make for more surprises and maybe some opportunities for Ferrari to snare a breakthrough result.

Perhaps the hardest home truth for Ferrari is that it is so hard to know where it properly stacks up. There isn’t a real certainty over how it will perform on any given weekend, the highs being offset by the lows. Its prospects at Monza are a bit of a mystery, especially in the congested fight to be second-quickest.

Following a bruising weekend at Zandvoort, where Ferrari struggled for pace throughout and was fortunate to come away with a fifth place courtesy of Sainz, the drivers had mixed views on their chances for Monza. While Leclerc said “on paper,” it didn’t look promising for Ferrari, a more upbeat Sainz said the team “should be back to a decent place.”

“I know it sounds optimistic right now, but our performance swings this year are so high that we could also be looking to be back to the second or third fastest car at Monza, especially after such a good result at Spa,” he said. “I’m more optimistic about that.”

That optimism is needed. It’s a long path back to the very top, and it could be years until Ferrari is in a position to fight for a championship again.

For all of the tifosi’s pride and passion, patience is the watchword as Vasseur, Leclerc and Sainz build toward a brighter future at Maranello.

(Lead image: Mark Thompson/Getty Images, ANP via Getty Images, Charles Coates/Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton, The Athletic)

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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