Ferrari's Flat 2014 Australian GP Should Worry Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen

Neil JamesFeatured ColumnistMarch 17, 2014

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari prepares to drive during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 14, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Clive Mason/Getty Images

Ferrari have never been in Formula One to make up the numbers.

They exist to win. They hire the best drivers they can, have a budget which is second-to-none, own extensive state-of-the-art facilities and possess a workforce brimming with brilliant, talented people.

So there will be many heavy hearts and pained expressions as the team head to Malaysia. It seems the F14T is just another in a long line of disappointing cars.

All throughout winter, it was difficult to see exactly how the Italian team matched up to their rivals. Deliberately low-key and unobtrusive, Ferrari did their own thing.

Mercedes received the positive headlines, Renault the negative. Ferrari received no headlines at all.

Many, including former driver Mika Salo, were convinced they were "sandbagging"going deliberately slowly to deceive their rivals.

He told Finnish radio station Nova (h/t Motorsport.com):

When you look at the sector times for the tests, some are very good but some are ridiculously bad. They are covering up their pace and no one really knows where they are.

Well, now we do know where they are. And signs are not good.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14:  Fernando Alonso of Spain and Ferrari drives off line during practice for the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 14, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)
Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

 

Where the Scuderia Stands

It's difficult to put a figure on the advantage Mercedes have over a single lap. Fernando Alonso's best time in free practice (one minute, 30.132 seconds) was eight-tenths of a second slower than the best time set by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes.

But practice isn't a reliable indicator of much, and we can't really use qualifying to glean any information, as the weather intervened.

Comparing race pace is easier. In 2013 this was Ferrari's fortethey'd qualify poorly, then make up places in the race.

This table shows the lap times set by Rosberg, Alonso and Ricciardo in the crucial five-lap period immediately after their second stops (information from the FIA):

LapRosbergLapAlonsoLapRicciardo
401:33.394371:34.374381:34.669
411:33.243381:34.570391:34.004
421:33.286391:33.994401:33.754
431:32.672401:33.951411:33.557
441:32.786411:34.092421:33.251

All were in clean air, with no cars less than three seconds ahead.

We can see the gap to Ricciardo was in the order of half a second. The gap to Rosberg, who was probably pushing less than either man, was around a second.

That's bad enough, but then add in the driver factor. With respect to Rosberg and Ricciardo, Alonso is better than both. Yet he was still that much slower.

But maybe we expected those two cars to be quicker. What about the Williams and McLaren?

Here's the same comparison, looking at Alonso alongside the McLaren of Kevin Magnussen and the Williams of Valtteri Bottas.

LapMagnussenLapAlonsoLapBottas
391:32.917371:34.374381:33.779
401:33.898381:34.570391:34.251
411:33.144391:33.994401:33.819
421:33.742401:33.951411:33.919
431:33.718411:34.092421:33.858

It was closer but there's still a gap, and these two were in dirty air for all or some of those five laps.

And that's Alonso's Ferrari. Kimi Raikkonen was even further down the road.

The tables show a snapshot, but the picture was the same all race. Ferrari appeared to have the fifth-best car in Australia.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16:  Jean-Eric Vergne of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso leads from Kimi Raikkonen of Finland and Ferrari during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 16, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Clive M
Clive Mason/Getty Images

 

Looking Ahead

A few decades ago, starting the year with the fifth-fastest car, a second off the pace, might not have been such a bad thing. A few changes to the setup might solve the problems, or maybe it was a track that didn't suit the car and tyres.

In 1998, Mika Hakkinen won as McLaren lapped the field at the opening round in Australia. Two races later, Ferrari's Michael Schumacher won the Argentine Grand Prix by more than 20 seconds from Hakkinen.

But swings like that don't happen these days. There's only one tyre supplier for starters, and technology has improved to such a degree that a near-perfect setup is known before the teams even get to the venue.

All the cars have such carefully crafted aerodynamics that even substantial changes rarely give gains of more than a few tenths.

The exception is when a specific aerodynamic innovation gives a massive advantage, like the Brawn double-diffuser in 2009.

That isn't the case today. One cannot point to a single external reason which explains why the Ferrari is not as quick as the Mercedes. There will be bits and pieces here and there, but the Ferrari is an aerodynamically sound car.

Internally, it's a different matter.

A large contributor to the gap between the two appears to be down the power unit.

Rumours and paddock talk, such as this piece by Sky Sports, say the Ferrari engine is less powerful, less drivable and less fuel efficient than the Mercedes.

Speed trap data backs this up to a degree. Ferrari, Sauber and Marussia were substantially slower than the teams they would expect to be fighting.

And Alonso was stuck behind Nico Hulkenberg's Force India for more than 20 laps, clearly faster but unable to pass even with the benefit of DRS.

Making changes here is difficult, because performance-enhancing development to the power units was banned at the end of February. Changes can be made to improve fuel economy, reliability and costbut Mercedes can make those changes too.

As can Renault.

It could be that Melbourne was an anomaly and Ferrari aren't as slow as they seem, but there's no evidence to back that up. It's more likely that the picture from Australia will be repeated in Malaysia and throughout the rest of the season.

That would make it six years since Ferrari produced a great car. For a team with their budget, history and personnel, that's just not good enough.

And for Alonso and Raikkonentwo men running out of time to claim more world titlesit would be a disaster.