“Because our performance of last year [was] so poor, when you’re starting from that point, I think you cannot be confident on how eventually you are competitive in 2021,” Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto recently told CNN Sport’s Amanda Davies.
It’s a brutal analysis that won’t immediately instill confidence in Ferrari fans after the team’s worst year in Formula One since 1980.
Binotto oversaw an eighth and 13th finish in the drivers’ championship standings and a sixth finish in the constructors’ championship in 2020, which was a dramatic regression for the historic Italian team and prompted a large-scale internal restructuring.
In a sport where year-on-year progress is demanded, the lack of results and dip in performances also focused scrutiny on Binotto and Ferrari’s drivers, notably Sebastien Vettel.
For 2021, Carlos Sainz has replaced Vettel, joining Charles Leclerc in the famous red racing suits.
Ferrari had a relatively successful season in 2019 – there were 19 podiums finishes and three wins between its two drivers – with budding superstar Leclerc and four-time world champion Vettel at the helm, reducing the gap to Lewis Hamilton and the Mercedes cars.
However, despite Leclerc’s brilliant second place finish in the season-opening Austrian Grand Prix in 2020, Ferrari’s season quickly stalled as its car struggled with speed on the straight lines, both with power and drag.
Binotto pulls no punches when describing last year as a “big, big disappointment,” one which they “cannot repeat,” though he hopes Ferrari can be at least “competitive” from the first race in Bahrain, which is on March 28.
‘Will to win’
Although the new token system means that parts of the car design has been frozen – postponing any possible development until 2022 – Ferrari have played their tokens on improving the back of the car.
The token system imposed for this season means teams can choose where to spend development resources, but they are limited to only two tokens to improve certain areas of the car, while other areas are “frozen” and cannot be upgraded.
While Binotto thinks the car will be better than last year’s edition, he and the two Ferrari drivers admit they won’t know for certain how much of a step forward they have made until all the teams race in Bahrain.
While the car is a work in progress, Binotto is urging the team to control its mentality and their “will to win.”
Managing a team with such a storied history – they have won the most world championships – the Ferrari team principal says he feels the “responsibility” of being at the helm, rather than any pressure.
“Being aware of each single detail counts and I think determination will be again important and showing progress,” said Binotto.
“So I think it’s really a matter of mentality, team mentality, drivers’ mentality and as team principal, no doubt, I’m fully aware of the responsibility I’ve got being part of such a team.
“I think it’s Italian excellence in a word. So I feel not the pressure; I feel the responsibility, but as well the pride. We simply need to do better.”
When Vettel and Ferrari teamed up in 2014, the return of world championships to Italy was the target.
Vettel came close, but since 2018, he fell away dramatically with his younger, Monegasque colleague Leclerc taking the mantle as Ferrari’s No. 1 driver.
Midway through 2020, it was announced Vettel would be replaced by Sainz. And although it hasn’t been a typical preparation period because of the coronavirus pandemic for the Spaniard, seeing his number on the distinctive red car and pulling on those famous red overalls during preseason training at Maranello has been “special” for Sainz
Despite the arrival of Sainz – one of F1’s promising prospects – much expectation rests on Leclerc’s shoulders.
The 23-year-old, who joined Ferrari in 2019, struggled like Vettel last season, finishing on the podium just twice.
Racing for a team steeped in so much F1 history might weigh on the shoulders of some drivers, but not Leclerc, who tries “not think about it too much, because I think this will hurt my performance.”
“At the end, I know what it means to be a Ferrari driver,” said Leclerc. “It’s something very, very special that I’ve dreamed of all my life.
“But on the other hand, I know also that to achieve the best result for the team, I need to focus on my own job and that’s how I will perform at my best.”
The relationship between two drivers in a F1 team is often an intriguing dynamic, as they both compete for the highest finishes, while also working together to prevent their competitors from finishing ahead of them.
However, the balance between wanting to beat your teammate and doing what’s best for the team can be a hard one to navigate, and one which has historically put drivers on a number of teams into sticky situations.
Sainz is coming to Ferrari from McLaren where he had a near telepathic relationship with teammate Lando Norris. And although they’ve not been able to spend as much time together on or off the track as they would’ve liked with Covid restrictions, Sainz and Leclerc can both see a strong connection building.
Sainz says he hopes they can bond over a game of padel – the racquet sport which is popular in Spain after being imported from Mexico, here it was founded in 1969.
Both drivers are well aware that the main priority heading into the new season is the team.
“I think we are both going to push flat out to make sure we can help this team to move forward,” Sainz said.
“I think we’ve already started on the right foot. We are getting on well and we are having a good relationship … We’ve been working together with this team, trying to push the team forward, trying to push in the same direction.”
Ferrari’s internal reorganization now sees four heads reporting to Binotto, including Enrico Cardile on the chassis side, Enrico Gualtieri for the power unit, Laurent Mekies for racing and Gianmaria Fulgenzi for the supply chain.
The need to be “dynamic” is key, according to Binotto.
“Organization has to adapt to what are the challenges and certainly we are always facing new challenges,” he explained.
“I think that now we’ve got certainly more clarity as well more responsibilities.”
While Ferrari remains realistic that challenging Hamilton will be tough, the importance of returning to the top table is key, not only for this season, but for the future as they aim to create a “winning cycle.”
Even so, Binotto acknowledges there are no quick fixes – or “silver bullets” as he calls them – which is why this year is a year for setting foundations.
“I think being Ferrari, I think I suppose we’ve got such a responsibility. We know Ferrari represents Italian excellence in the world,” he said
“Ferrari somehow is the most winning team in Formula One, it’s the one that has participated since the very start. So I think that’s part of our DNA. And I think if you’re Ferrari, you are always aiming to the title.
“So we know that it will take some more time, but whatever time it will take, [it is] more important that we cannot as Ferrari simply accept to be there and participate. That cannot be the final objective. And for us it’s not only about winning a title; I think it’s really trying to create a winning cycle.”