Lost in the glow of Lewis Hamilton’s sixth Formula 1 world title, five of which are with the Mercedes team, was the long shadow creeping over archrivals Ferrari. It’s now 12 years since the Italian team—the oldest and the most successful in F1—won a driver’s championship, and the length of this barren run is past the point of grating.

This isn’t Ferrari’s longest barren run: it went without a driver’s title for 20 years between 1980 and 1999. But the contexts are different. For much of that first dry patch, Ferrari oscillated between being competitive and bumbling. In this one, Ferrari had become a well-oiled machine, expected to win. It has come close to doing so—five times in the last 12 years.

There are three distinct narratives to how it came close—and was denied each time. The first is theft: in 2008, Felipe Massa almost stole a title that nobody seemingly wanted to win. The second is maximisation: in 2010 and 2012, Fernando Alonso squeezed a whole lot more out of a car that wasn’t quite there. The third is implosion: in 2017 and 2018, Sebastian Vettel went missing in the season’s second half with a car that was so much there.

The misses, near and far, are amplified in what preceded this 12-year streak. In two words, Michael Schumacher. The German driver led a Ferrari renaissance that delivered five consecutive driver titles between 2000 and 2004. That phase of dominance redefined the team and reset expectations.

It wasn’t just what Ferrari won, it was also how it won. There was a clarity of thought, a decisiveness in decision-making, a willingness to take risks and manage it well, a clear hierarchy of command, and an ability to find reserves. Ferrari of that time, dare one say, would have made some of these five close years count.

There are several places where Ferrari have since lost out, notably in these five close years. The first is raw pace. It wasn’t until 2017 that Ferrari gave its drivers a car that was fast, and consistently so, compared to the best around it. A year-wise comparison of the median qualifying positions between the best Ferrari driver and the title-winning driver shows that Ferrari faced a deficit in 11 of the 12 years, the exception being 2008.

At times, the deficit was significant, notably during Alonso’s five-year stint between 2010 and 2014. That he still nearly won a title twice speaks volumes for him and the team. For example, in 2012, the median qualifying of Alonso was only positioned 6—nearly twice that of the leader—but he remained in the mix by being efficient and consistent.

In 2017, when Ferrari did put out a fast car, Mercedes matched it well. Sebastian Vettel’s median qualifying was position 2, but Hamilton’s median qualifying was position 1. A similar story ensued in 2018.

In F1, the distance between position one and two, or even three, is not that pronounced at the start of a race. There are opportunities to overtake. Ferrari being a position or two below Mercedes meant that when it did qualify in the top 3, it had to make it count.

That’s what Alonso did in 2010, when he not only qualified in the top 3 in 11 of the 19 races, he also did not drop too many positions. This is a contrast with Vettel, who became error-prone and accident-prone in the second half of both 2017 and 2018 and failed to maximise the advantage of a strong position.

In 2017, he actually out-qualified Hamilton to the top 3 (17 versus 14, out of 20 races). However, while starting in the top 3, he also shed a cumulative 39 positions over those 17 races. This was thrice as many as Hamilton, who made a top 3 start count for more.

The lead Mercedes drivers have been excellent in containing losses. In each of the last five years, the lead Mercedes driver has finished outside the top five positions—which gives the opposition a chance to open up leads—in a maximum of just two races. That figure for the lead Ferrari driver has varied from 2-6 race.

Put another way, a bad day for Ferrari was a terrible day, while Mercedes tended to salvage more out of such days. These small things have all showed up at different points of time, and added up to leave a hallowed team searching for something special to pull across the line for 12 years now. And counting.

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