Struggling Ferrari miles off the F1 pace at Spa with no quick fix in sight

Already under fierce scrutiny this season, Ferrari face perhaps their toughest weekend yet at the Belgian Grand Prix. The forests of the Ardennes through which the Spa-Francorchamps circuit weaves will offer nowhere to hide, the shortcomings of their car brutally exposed. The meeting, at which Ferrari have been imperious in recent years, is likely to be a long, trying, weekend with the Scuderia reduced from fighting for the championship to scrapping for a place in the points.

A year ago, Charles Leclerc scored his debut F1 win here. The previous year Sebastian Vettel took the flag. On both occasions Ferrari’s straightline speed proved indomitable. Vettel simply blasted past Lewis Hamilton and won by 11 seconds and similarly Mercedes could not match Leclerc’s pace in his untroubled win from pole. This year it will be a different story, Ferrari mired in a slugging match with the midfield teams and at Spa it is a fight where they will expect to take some licks.

Since the FIA imposed a clarification of the regulations on their power unit toward the end of last season, the Ferrari has been down on pace. Their team principal, Mattia Binotto, has admitted it cost them performance. Through the high-speed first and third sectors at Spa that price was writ large. Worse still this year’s car also creates too much drag, compounding the power deficit and it is a handful to drive. An unholy trinity for drivers and team alike that has been acknowledged at the very highest level.

“This year we are not competitive thanks to project errors,” said the Ferrari chairman, John Elkann. “We have had a number of structural weaknesses that have existed for some time in aerodynamics and in the dynamics of the vehicle. We have also lost out in engine power.”

Practice at Spa bore out a gloomy prognosis. Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton led the time sheets in the first session, with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen on top in the afternoon, while Ferrari were in uncharted territory. Leclerc was 14th and Vettel 15th in the first session, and the pair an extraordinary 15th and 17th in the second. They were a second and a half off the pace of the leaders.

Leclerc had admitted he expected the team to suffer in Spa, but he might consider this beyond the pale. Alongside Mercedes and Red Bull, McLaren, Racing Point, Renault and AlphaTauri were all quicker. Even Kimi Raikkonen in the Ferrari-engined customer team Alfa Romeo had the edge on his former outfit. The scale of their fall from grace at Spa was bluntly illustrated on the clock, Leclerc’s time in practice was 2.9 seconds slower than his pole time last year.

The team are fifth in the constructors’ championship with a points tally flattered by Leclerc scoring two podiums and there is no quick fix in sight. Binotto is a calm, personable leader and has insisted there will be none of the panicking nor blood-letting in which Ferrari may have indulged in the past. There has been a restructuring of the technical department but with this year’s cars also to be used in 2021 it appears that the Scuderia have acknowledged they are now accepting these woes must be borne for another season at least.

The language emerging now is that of looking to the future, of building back to victory.

“We have said it several times, but it’s worth repeating: we have started to lay the foundations of a process which should lead to a new and enduring winning cycle,” said Binotto. “It will take some time and we will suffer setbacks like the one we are experiencing right now in terms of results and performance. However, we must react to these shortcomings with strength and determination.”

His words were echoed by Elkann. “The reality is that our car is not competitive,” he said. “You saw it on the track and you will see it again. Today we are laying the foundations for being competitive and returning to winning when the rules change in 2022. I am convinced of this.”

The difficulty Binotto faces is that the pressure, the scrutiny and the expectations will remain intense throughout that time even if the organisation itself has accepted their lot, painful as it may be until 2022. The steep hills of the Ardennes through which this glorious circuit is carved pale into insignificance to the mountain that lies before him and his team.