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Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari during the Spanish Grand Prix. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters
Sebastian Vettel of Ferrari during the Spanish Grand Prix. Photo: Albert Gea/Reuters

Is Ferrari back in Formula One fast lane?

Ahead of the Monaco Grand Prix, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari show promise, but Mercedes are still the dominant Formula One team in 2015

“Ferrari is back," the radio crackled as Sebastian Vettel crossed the finish line in the Malaysian Grand Prix in March. “Forza Ferrari!" the four-time world champion replied in his newly acquired Italian accent. After a painful 2014 for both parties, victory in their second race together was promising.

This season Ferrari look different to the one that finished fourth in the constructors’ standings last year. Its technical team has undergone a sea change; the highly rated former Lotus man James Allison is now its head. The pressure to impress Luca di Montezemolo, former Ferrari president, is gone. So is Fernando Alonso’s brooding presence in the garage. In September, while Alonso was dithering over whether to sign a new contract with Ferrari, then team principal Marco Mattiacci brought long-time target Vettel on board.

Since then, Mattiacci has been replaced by Maurizio Arrivabene, who has been instrumental in the team’s resurgence. His management style suits the laid-back attitude of Vettel’s friend and team-mate, Kimi Räikkönen. Arrivabene instructed his engineers to keep Räikkönen’s driving style in mind while designing the 2015 car. The Ferrari garage looks happy. Before the Bahrain Grand Prix in April, Räikkönen told reporters the atmosphere in the team was the best it had been in his five years with Ferrari.

Of course, it helps when the team is getting the results it desires. During winter testing, there was no doubt Ferrari had taken a huge step forward in both aerodynamics and engine power. The team was hopeful about this season, after securing two podium finishes in 2014. So far in 2015, Vettel has finished third in the Australian Grand Prix in March, won in Malaysia and secured two more third-place finishes, in China (in April) and Spain (8-10 May). Räikkönen hasn’t been far behind, finishing fourth in Malaysia and China, and second in Bahrain.

Williams have taken a step back in development this season, and the Renault engines in Red Bull cars have been unreliable. So Ferrari are only behind Mercedes at present, but the gap, in terms of both points and capabilities, is quite large at the moment. Ferrari are at 132 points; Mercedes, 202 points.

Games they play

But two weeks later, his victory at the Sepang International Circuit in Malaysia stunned the Mercedes camp. Their boss, Toto Wolff, called it a wake-up call. In 2014, the only races Mercedes didn’t win were ones in which they faced technical glitches in their cars. But both Hamilton and Rosberg finished the Malaysian race. Vettel had beaten them fair and square on the track, and his victory was hailed as the return of competitiveness to Formula One (F1).

Even so, there were specific reasons for this result: High temperatures helped Ferrari’s tyres hold up, and Sepang’s layout favoured their rear tyres. In the following races, Mercedes asserted their supremacy. They bounced back with a one-two finish in China and first and third places in Bahrain, where despite the high temperature, Ferrari finished second at best. Mercedes were armed with upgrades for the Spanish Grand Prix, at Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and notched up another one-two result. The gap to third-placed Vettel was a glaring 28-plus seconds, almost sending Ferrari back to square one.

“They were just too quick for us," Vettel said after the race. Arrivabene admitted Ferrari’s updates had not worked efficiently. The Barcelona circuit is where most of the winter testing takes place. This circuit helps engineers understand their cars better. The race there heralds the beginning of the European season and more or less defines the rest of the championship for teams. Therefore, Ferrari’s disappointment was understandable.

Teams wait for the European leg of the season to begin before making major updates. As things stand after the Spanish Gran Prix, Vettel and Räikkönen will be in contention for race wins and podiums, thanks to Ferrari’s forward step. The team’s engines will get a 20-30 bhp increment from next month’s Canadian Grand Prix, which may further help them close the gap on Mercedes.

At the moment, though, with the nearly 30-second gap at Barcelona, Hamilton and Rosberg are the only real contenders for the 2015 drivers’ championship.

Mercedes: the cracks within

Hamilton’s performance, on the other hand, has been immaculate. He has always been a confident driver but looks even more so after winning the championship last year. With a bulletproof car under him, he has been in the zone, taking four consecutive pole positions in the first four races and winning three of them. His late charge in the Spanish Grand Prix, in defiance of radio orders, suggests he is obsessed with winning his third world title this year itself.

Mercedes were actually worried early in the season that Hamilton’s dominance would demotivate Rosberg. “In the first four races, Lewis blew Nico off the track," said Niki Lauda, Mercedes non-executive chairman and former world champion. He was glad Rosberg fought back by winning in Barcelona. “I would say he is totally back, and for the team this is good; we have good team spirit now."

Team spirit in F1 can be fickle. In 2014, things got heated—both on and off the track—between long-time friends Hamilton and Rosberg, cooling down only after the former won his second championship. This weekend, at the Monaco Grand Prix, they return to the scene where things first flared up last year, when Rosberg out-braked himself and cost Hamilton in qualifying.

Competition between them will be fierce this year too. Hamilton will want to recover from his Spanish blip, and Rosberg will want to further reduce the 20-point deficit, while they keep Ferrari at arm’s length.

Chetan Narula is the author of History Of Formula One: The Circus Comes To India.

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