Seeing Red: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari's Strategic Shortcomings

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Seeing Red: Michael Schumacher and Ferrari's Strategic Shortcomings
(Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

With seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher sitting on the Ferrari pit wall for the Malaysian Grand Prix, attention was always going to be focused on the team to see if they could recapture the kind of form that saw the German win five straight titles with them.

Much of Schumacher's success was down to the strategic genius of Ferrari's race team, on many occasions his car springing seemingly from nowhere to capture an unexpected win.

So when Kimi Raikkonen's race was ruined by a failed gamble on wet tyres at Sepang, the response was predictable.

Perhaps, some surmised, Schumacher had been involved in the decision-making process, his call to switch Raikkonen to wet tyres destroying any hope the Finn had of scoring points?

Schumacher has since announced that he will not be attending the races in China and Bahrain, adding fuel to the fire and prompting premature speculation that all is not well at Maranello.

In order to understand whether these claims are reliable, it is important to appreciate Schumacher's role at Ferrari, since he retired from racing at the end of 2006.

Since that time, the 40-year-old has been a consultant to the Italian marque, providing useful sponsorship exposure for the team, as well as testing their 2007 and 2008 cars.

He also advised the team on their transition from grooved to slick tyres in preparation for the new season, his first two world titles having come on slicks back in the mid-1990s.

However, Schumacher has no official role as a member of the race team, let alone in any strategic capacity; when he appears on the Ferrari pit wall at races, he is a guest of the team and nothing more.

Therefore, if it really was Schumacher who made the call to put Raikkonen on wet tyres, his opinion was not authoritative and must have been agreed upon by other engineers.

Moreover, Ferrari's woes in the race strategy department are not limited to last weekend in Malaysia.

Ever since Schumacher left his racing role at Ferrari, along with key team members such as Ross Brawn (now winning races with his new Brawn GP team), the Italian outfit has struggled in races undertaken in less-than-straightforward conditions.

In the Japanese race of 2007 the team for some reason ignored an order from the race director to don extreme-weather tyres as the race was being started under the safety car; the stewards were feeling lenient that day and both drivers escaped the black flag, but they fell to the back of the field as they had to pit for the appropriate tyres.

Even if their decision not to run the extreme tyre had not been in contravention of the officials' orders, what was baffling is that both drivers were given the same tyre; it is a fundamental rule in Formula One that when gambling on a strategy in adverse conditions, the two cars should be given separate strategies just in case one gamble fails.

The strategic troubles continued throughout 2008; in races affected by unusual circumstances Ferrari made wrong call after wrong call, such as not changing Raikkonen's tyres in the weather-affected British Grand Prix, meaning that his mounting challenge to Lewis Hamilton's lead petered out before it could really affect the race.

These poor decisions culminated in that disastrous pit stop for Felipe Massa in the Singapore Grand Prix, where he was released too early and ended up dragging his fuel hose down the pit lane.

So Ferrari's strategic difficulties, far from being an isolated incident that ruined Raikkonen's race this weekend, are part of a fundamental inability of the team to deliver the results when the going gets tough.

Even if Schumacher was involved in the decision to put Raikkonen on wet tyres in Malaysia, which he and his manager have both denied, it is nonetheless symptomatic of a major problem in the workings of the team.

In short, the incident reflects far worse on Ferrari than it does on Schumacher.

So what is lacking in the team now, that they had in abundance during the glorious Schumacher-Brawn-Byrne-Todt years of success?

Simply pointing to a single person, such as Ross Brawn, and highlighting him as the sole reason for Ferrari's decline is too simplistic.

The problem is leadership, or in Ferrari's case a lack thereof.

It is becoming increasingly clear, as Ferrari begin to truly struggle for the first time since the mid-1990s, that Stefano Domenicali may not be the right man to take the team forward.

His years of loyalty at Maranello and experience within the team have paid off, for he has one of the most envied jobs in the pit lane, but he has yet to make the same mark on the team that his predecessor Jean Todt undoubtedly did.

Moreover, Domenicali lacks a right-hand man, someone to fill the huge void left by Brawn; filling the shoes of Todt must be tough enough, but having to step in for Brawn as well is a task nobody could be expected to perform effectively.

Individuals with that spark of strategic genius characterised by people like Brawn, and Pat Symonds of Renault, are hard to come by in Formula One: There is, however, at least one person proven as a top strategist currently without a job.

Mike Gascoyne, however, said that he was finished working with big manufacturers after he left from an unhappy spell at Toyota, so to lure him back to F1 after his unceremonious dismissal from Force India may be too difficult for the Scuderia to manage.

What is certain, however, is that Ferrari need somebody else to help drag them out of the mire they have found themselves in.

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