As a tight head-to-head to the death or final glory often makes clear, two main facets can be traced within Formula 1 competition: the side of technical research, which implies developing your car to the very limits of physics and regulations, and then setting it up to suit every single track and tyre compound at best, all of which happens inside factories, wind tunnels and computers; second but not by any means least is the sporting side of Formula 1, the whole thing that involves all of race engineers, mechanics and drivers, and whose habitats are circuits, cockpits and pitwalls. The sporting aspect becomes prominent in the race session itself, and only once the technical aspect has been assessed and sussed out, when matters need to be duked out.
Whilst on one hand we could experience a sensational evolution from the Ferrari side by the start of 2017 up until the latest race in Hungary, bringing the Italian F1 car on roughly equal terms with arch rivals Mercedes (if not even higher up), points standings depict a scene seen too often, with Lewis Hamilton and the German marque on top of both lists. Too many were left wondering: how can Ferrari possibly be second with a (sligthly) quicker, more consistent vehicle, comfortable with every different kind of track layout, temperature range and tyre compound?
The answer lies in the other hand. Since the Ferrari-Mercedes duel is solved by means of hundreds of milliseconds and handfuls of millimetres, every Grand Prix is not won in factories days before the real event, but around racetracks and on pitwalls on an unquiet Sunday afternoon. And here comes what Ferrari is not quite accustomed to just yet. Mercedes have so far reaped the fruits of their four-year winning streak, leaving the opponents no margin for error.
A margin that Ferrari had already trespassed in China, first giving up 1 second in the pitstop procedure to get undercut by Bottas, then staying out under Safety Car to eventually lose pace to a fast-charging pair of Bulls – including a very wild one -.
But the all-European summer phase has seen Ferrari go off the mark multiple times: in the returning French Grand Prix Vettel had a clumsy management of a tight space, ending up head first into Bottas’ left rear tyre, which meant a final 5th place following a hurried comeback while teammate Räikkönen had to save the day with a solid 3rd, and rival Hamilton could cruise the race home unhindered.
Austria offered the Reds a golden chance as Mercedes suffered a singular double retirement, but Vettel was harmed by a debatable grid penalty for holding up Sainz during qualifying – his race engineer failing to alert him – and could climb no higher than third, while the Finn was only second after having lost places in the opening lap. Verstappen won out of nowhere.
Following a thrilling triumph on rivals’ ground at Silverstone, Vettel’s slip-up under rain at home and last weekend’s missed recovery from a bleak wet qualifying in Hungary are the latest of a series of minuscule lacks that – among often adverse conditions – are costing Ferrari the lead in the Formula 1 World Championship.
Discussing his very own error, Vettel’s post-race interview in Hockenheim is a spot-on summary of his teams’ current situation: “I don't think it was a huge mistake,” he reckoned. “It was a huge impact on the race because we retired there. […] Small mistake, big disappointment.”
For it’s clear that a top-driver the class of Vettel will hardly repeat such mistake, and Ferrari as a whole can build on recent lapses to develop its tactical cunning over the course of the season, what the Scuderia apparently needs is to fully realize its position in the pecking order.
They need to acknowledge they are the best on the technical side, so they can be on the sporting side as well. It takes time, it takes habitude, but once they reach that level, Ferrari can turn into the real favourites for the 2018 Formula 1 titles.