The secrets to Ferrari’s consistency

Many teams have taken a turn in the spotlight during the past two decades, but none has been as dependably competitive as Formula 1’s oldest crusader. Here’s why…

As a new season begins and Ferrari once more looks likely to be providing Mercedes with its stiffest opposition, it’s a remarkable fact that in the past 20 years – with the exception of three seasons – the Scuderia has been there or thereabouts in the front rank of competitiveness. Furthermore, it has done this against an ever-revolving roster of rivals, different eras with different colours all threaded together by red. Williams at first, then McLaren, Renault, McLaren again, Red Bull and now Mercedes: each taking their turn, but with Ferrari the constant.   

It used to be that Ferrari, just like every other team, would have its strong seasons almost equally interspersed with weak ones, but the long-term era of sustained success really began with the recruitment 19 years ago of Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne. What they – in close association with Jean Todt and Michael Schumacher – put in place
not only garnered Ferrari a record-breaking run of world championships and race victories, but also allowed the momentum of success to carry on after the partnership had broken up. 

What is behind this dynamic? What should not be underestimated is the need for Ferrari to be competitive – from both F1 itself and parent company Fiat. The brand is so powerful, its following so big, that it’s bad news for F1’s popularity whenever it falls out of the competitive picture. Historically, its needs have been looked upon favourably by the power-brokers. Likewise, a horse that’s limping rather than prancing doesn’t really help market the company’s products. That brand value forms a degree of collateral against which unrivalled budgets can be raised.  

Something else to be considered is that the competitive picture of F1 from 1992-2009 could essentially be distilled down to Ross Brawn vs Adrian Newey. They were the two constants even as Adrian spread his favours between Williams, McLaren and Red Bull. Although Ross is nine years out of Ferrari now, the systems and values instilled by him continue to run through the engineering group. 

Finally, do not underestimate the power of manufacturing your own engines. Regardless of where they have stacked up against the competition’s motors, the engines have allowed the Scuderia to be in charge of its own destiny in a way that, for example, Williams, McLaren and Red Bull haven’t always been able to be. 

The Rivals 

1996-97 Williams

Williams was at the height of its Newey-era power as first Schumacher and subsequently Brawn and Byrne changed from Benetton blue to red. The secret to the speed of the FW18 of ’96 and the following year’s FW19 was exploiting a regulation loophole that allowed Newey to take the diffuser over the top of the plank to get a much bigger exit area – and therefore a more powerful diffuser effect. A stepped-gear arrangement allowed the gearbox to be sited higher, clearing the space to make the ruse work. This arrangement made its debut late in ’95 on the FW17B but amazingly Ferrari – and everyone else – had not noticed and thus did not incorporate it into their ’96 cars. Schumacher conjured three miracle wins from the bulbous, highly pitch-sensitive F310 but in reality it was not in the same league as the Williams.

Newey was on gardening leave by ’97, but his evolution of the ’96 car was enough to get the job done – though by now the Williams was facing real competition from the final John Barnard Ferrari, the F310B, developed by Byrne and Brawn. Schumacher only lost out on the title in the final round at Jerez after his infamous collision with Jacques Villeneuve’s Williams. Although the Williams was clearly faster – it set pole 11 times to the Ferrari’s three – the performance gap was closing and furthermore the Scuderia was enjoying the services of the world’s best driver and, increasingly, an operational slickness that was never Williams’s forte.     

Schumacher’s recruitment in ’96 gave the team a world-class driver for the first time since Alain Prost’s departure at the end of ’91. But, unlike Prost, Schumacher was part of a self-contained unit of brilliant individuals. Jean Todt was able to keep the corporate pressures away from the race team while the engineering side – having been humiliated in merely assembling Barnard’s designs – was now having its confidence restored by Ross and Rory. The foundations of a very special team
were being laid. 

At the same time Williams was losing its works engine status as Renault was pulling out of official involvement at the end of the ’97 season. Works Renaults gone, Adrian Newey gone, Williams was about to fall from a great height.  

1998-2004 McLaren

Newey had left Williams for McLaren, coinciding with a radical shake-up of the technical regulations for ’98 – narrow track, grooved tyres. The MP4-13 was mainly his baby, distinguished by a lower-than-fashionable nose to bring down the centre of gravity, compensating for the reduction in mechanical grip, while Mercedes (Ilmor) was making great strides in its engine development, a crucial part of which was extensive use of beryllium. The team also switched to the new Bridgestone tyres (which had shown so well on the Prost and Stewart in ’97) while Ferrari remained on Goodyears. 

The McLaren-Mercedes-Bridgestone combo was the gold standard of ’98 – but still Schumacher kept Ferrari in title contention all the way to the final round, only losing out to Mika Häkkinen through a faulty clutch mechanism. Tactical acuity on Brawn’s part probably flattered the team as much as Schumacher’s relentless performance, because it was clear Byrne’s first Ferrari, the F300, wasn’t quite a McLaren match on raw pace – competitive on high speed sections, behind on low- to medium-speed aero. But the team’s new-found ability to develop strongly was apparent as Schumacher took three straight poles at the end of the season, McLaren having taken 12 prior to this. Much credit for this went to Paolo Martinelli’s engine group.

The ’99 and 2000 McLarens were essentially evolutions of the title-winning ’98 car, while Ferrari pursued its own technical direction – and gradually closed that gap while building up the facilities of the vehicle dynamics and R&D groups. Schumacher – and not Häkkinen – would probably have taken the ’99 title were it not for his leg-breaking Silverstone accident. Even Eddie Irvine – a good rather than great driver – took it to the final round. McLaren’s tyre advantage had evaporated as Bridgestone now supplied the whole field. This was the year of the infamous barge board row, the F399s being declared illegal at the penultimate round. An initial disqualification apparently put Irvine out of title contention – only for the FIA to overrule that the following week, before Irvine lost out again on track. Ferrari at least had the consolation of its first championship for constructors since 1983. 

What really cost Ferrari’s drivers in both ’98 and ’99 was being off the McLaren pace early in the season, the team forced to catch up in development what it had lost out in conception. It resolved to start 2000 on equal terms – and with the F1-2000 the first car fully conceived in Ferrari’s new on-site wind tunnel and the tech group coming into full maturity, that is indeed how it panned out. It was the first Ferrari under the Brawn/Byrne era that was not compromised in its design by the contingencies of the factory skill levels and facilities. The new car, its engine’s vee angle increased from 80 to 90 degrees to lower the centre of gravity, gave Schumacher the necessary platform to become the first Ferrari world champion since Jody Scheckter after a thrilling Suzuka showdown with Häkkinen, the only driver of the time Schumacher truly feared. 

The momentum was with Ferrari now, McLaren hanging on as best it could for the next three years, Ferrari’s superiority increasing progressively through ’01 – when the FIA’s beryllium ban impacted upon Ilmor – and into the total dominance of ’02. Prior to the renewed legalisation of traction control early in ’01 Ferrari had aroused suspicion, as its software mimicked the effects of the banned technology without transgressing. With everyone enjoying traction control from Spain ’01 onwards, Ferrari’s advantage actually increased, silencing the critics.  

Newey reckons McLaren had lost its way, that the team was becoming too systems-driven as it evolved, not fast enough to react. Trying to compensate with an extreme design (the MP4-18 of 2003) proved a step too far, too fragile ever to race. Nonetheless McLaren’s Kimi Räikkönen took the fight to the final round in an updated 2002 car. Partly, this was because Ferrari’s challenge had – unusually – been blunted by a late-notice sporting regulation change; single-lap qualifying with parc fermé meant it was no longer possible to alter weight distribution between qualifying and the race, something that particularly hurt the long-wheelbase F2003-GA, meaning not enough weight could be brought to the front. In retaliation, Ferrari used its political clout late in the year to create a tyre controversy against Michelin (which now supplied all the other top teams as Ferrari formed an ever-closer bond with Bridgestone). With a car tailor-made to the parc fermé regulations, Ferrari’s 2004 domination exceeded even that of 2002. Its 90kg V10 produced more than 900bhp, a gain of 100bhp in just four years. McLaren was on the ropes, Newey was disenchanted. His extreme layout for the ’05 car entailed Mercedes lowering its crankshaft height significantly, leading to Räikkönen’s super-fast MP4-20 often retiring in a cloud of expensive smoke.

2005-06 Renault

For the second time in three years Ferrari was inadvertently penalised by a late-notice regulation change, designed to improve the show. Tyre changes were banned for 2005 – a disaster for Ferrari’s partner Bridgestone, perfect for Michelin. Not being a full radial construction, the Bridgestone’s sidewalls were rigid, forcing the tread to move more than on the flexi-sidewall full radial Michelin. This caused the Bridgestone tread to run hotter, incurring more wear. This hadn’t been a problem in the era of multiple tyre changes – but was now. This was one of the three seasons in the 20-year spell we’re looking at in which Ferrari was genuinely off the pace, together with 2009 and ’14. Since returning in 2001, meanwhile, Renault had been continually developing a uniquely rearward weight-bias concept that fully exploited the Michelins’ superb longitudinal grip, and was now being led by the apparent heir to Schumacher’s throne, Fernando Alonso. In the final year of the V10 formula it waltzed to the title. Räikkönen’s Newey concept ‘zero keel’ McLaren MP4-20 was often faster – but nowhere near reliable enough. 

Into the new V8 formula of 2006, tyre changes were re-introduced. Bridgestone came up with a Michelin-type construction in the final year of the tyre war and Ferrari was a totally re-invigorated force, allowing Schumacher – in what he had decided was going to be his final year – to go head-to-head with Alonso. Renault held a small upper hand for most of the season’s first half but the desire to see Ferrari prevail was apparent in the FIA’s mid-season ban of Renault’s mass damper, a feature to which no one had previously objected. It was perhaps no coincidence that Ferrari could not make the device work… Then Alonso was penalised for impeding Felipe Massa’s Ferrari at Monza, despite running several hundred metres ahead of it. As Renault retuned its car around the new ruling, Bridgestone made great development gains and Schumacher overturned his earlier points deficit. But for a blown engine at the penultimate round in Suzuka, Schumacher would have gone into retirement with an eighth title. Instead, Alonso successfully defended his crown. 

The end of Michelin’s participation – collateral damage from F1’s determination to have a spec tyre – lost Renault the whole justification of the technical concept it had developed over the previous six years. That hurt even more than the loss of Alonso.

It was the end of the great Todt/Brawn/Schumacher axis. Brawn had already planned to take a sabbatical in ’07 even before Michael’s decision. Byrne had retired from a full-time role (though continues as a Ferrari consultant to this day) and Todt would soon be gone, too.

2007-08 McLaren

Luca di Montezemolo’s vision of a post-Brawn Ferrari was one of home-grown talent and ex-team manager Stefano Domenicali assumed Todt’s former role. But Montezemolo-Domenicali was much more of a boss-employee dynamic. The structures and personnel put together by Brawn were enough to carry the momentum, ensuring Ferrari remained a top team, but Domenicali simply wasn’t as empowered to demand things – long-term investment for new programmes, keeping management out of the day-to-day running of the team – as the Todt/Brawn axis had been. Its energies slowly became more diffused.

An era had come to an end at McLaren too. Newey had departed at the end of ’05 and the group he left behind was super-motivated to make its mark without him. Although the headlines were dominated by the ‘Spygate’ scandal relating to a Ferrari technical dossier that ended up in McLaren’s hands, the MP4-22 and Ferrari F2007 were very different cars in concept and operation. The long-wheelbase Ferrari seemed to generate more high-speed downforce and was probably a faster car overall, but in qualifying had difficulty generating the necessary front temperatures in the control supply tyres, making it operationally tricky. McLaren’s pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Alonso was in hindsight a stronger one than Ferrari’s Räikkönen/Massa line-up, the fire of Kimi’s great days already beginning to dim. Nonetheless he secured the title after McLaren made an unfathomable decision to leave Hamilton out on worn tyres at the penultimate race. 

The breakdown of the Ron Dennis-Alonso relationship meant Fernando was out after just one season of a three-year contract, leaving Hamilton as McLaren’s clear number one. The pattern between the cars was much as it had been in ’07 though, Hamilton stealing the title from under Massa’s nose two corners from the end of the season. The new aero regulations of ’09 would drop McLaren catastrophically off the pace and the reverberations of Spygate continued, leading to Dennis stepping down. At the end of that year it would lose its status as a works team, as Mercedes bought the title-winning Brawn outfit. But a new force was set to overhaul McLaren as Ferrari’s chief protagonist. 

2009-13 Red Bull

This was the beginning of a difficult period for the Scuderia. For one, the drive to reduce costs in the wake of the economy’s downturn brought an in-season testing ban, negating one of Ferrari’s key areas of advantage – the Fiorano test track. Over the years its reliance on this – combined with the less forceful team management not pushing for more investment – had left Ferrari trailing in the field of ever-advancing simulation software. The radical change of formula for 2009 had made this even more punishing than it would otherwise have been and, furthermore, Montezemolo had put himself on the other side of the political divide, against the governing body. So when Ferrari objected to the double diffuser used by Brawn, Williams and Toyota to get around new aero restrictions it wasn’t too surprising that the FIA found in Brawn’s favour, leaving Ferrari with a car ill-configured to a double diffuser (because of its gearbox shape) and a season that yielded just one win. 

Meanwhile, Newey had by now been building up the young Red Bull team’s technical infrastructure for three years, having been granted greater scope and freedom than ever he’d enjoyed at McLaren. He used the new regulations as an opportunity for a radical, pared-back design, with pull-rod rear suspension opening up an area of aerodynamic advantage that would prove even more valuable as double diffusers were banned from 2011. The 2009 RB5 would form the basis of the title-winning cars that would follow over the next four years, as Ferrari struggled to catch up. There were firings and hirings in the technical departments but generally the Scuderia was back to where it had been in the Williams era, relying on a great driver – Alonso, recruited from 2010 – to stay in contention with a car that was close but rarely the outright fastest. Red Bull initiated and perfected exhaust-blowing of the diffuser to enhance slow-speed aero, a technology in which Ferrari – with its less advanced simulation tools – got left behind. Blown diffusers also punished Ferrari’s characteristic front tyre warm-up issue even harder. Yet only a strategic blunder lost Alonso the title at the final round in 2010. Two years later he again lost out at the finale as Sebastian Vettel took his third straight title, Red Bull maintaining its form even with the field on new low-performance Pirellis from 2011. After just one victory in 2013 and another Vettel title, Alonso’s frustration grew and the pressure upon the team began to build. This had been compounded when the late-2010 upgrade of the wind tunnel from 50 to 60 per cent scale introduced serious correlation errors that would take another couple of years to sort properly. 

Red Bull’s aerodynamic mastery had left Ferrari – and everyone else – on the back foot. It would take a new engine formula to bring that era to an end.