'We're pushing like hell - Red Bull can be caught', says Ferrari F1 boss


Ferrari's dwindling pace during the Saudi Arabian GP saw it finish behind Aston Martin and Mercedes. But F1 team principal Fred Vasseur believes finding the car's sweet spot will bring a "decent step" towards the front

Sparks fly from Ferrari of Carlos Sainz in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix


Is Scuderia Ferrari in as much trouble as the result of the Saudi Arabian GP suggests? Certainly the Maranello camp didn’t have a lot to celebrate on Sunday evening, a year after Charles Leclerc just lost out to Max Verstappen.

On that occasion Leclerc left Jeddah as World Championship leader, and with his team-mate Carlos Sainz finishing third that day, Ferrari had an impressive 40-point advantage in the constructors’ table.

This time around Sainz and Leclerc finished the Jeddah race sixth and seventh, some 35 and 43 seconds respectively behind race winner Sergio Perez, and despite a safety car closing up the field early on. To be fair Leclerc had at least progressed from 12th having taken a grid penalty – but Verstappen started three places behind him and charged to within 5 seconds of Perez.

On paper it looks like a disaster, and indeed with the sole-surviving Aston Martin and the two Mercedes both outrunning the Ferraris in the race, it some respects it was.

However, there were some positives to be drawn, and not just the better reliability the team demonstrated after the frustrations in Bahrain. Crucially the SF-23 has some speed, at least over one lap.

Charles Leclerc drives past multicoloured track boundary in 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Ferrari qualifying pace was an improvement on Bahrain


In Bahrain Leclerc qualified third, just under three-tenths slower than pole man Verstappen, and a similar margin ahead of Fernando Alonso and the quickest Mercedes. In Jeddah with Verstappen out of qualifying he was second and 0.155sec off pole man Perez, and further ahead of Aston and Mercedes than the previous week.

The likelihood is that Verstappen would have been a tad quicker than Perez, but the fact is that over a sample of two races, Ferrari has had the second fastest car, and that’s not something to be ignored.

The downside was that Leclerc had to take a 10-place penalty for taking a third control electronics of the season at only the second race, and from 12th it was always going to be hard for him.

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He initially made good progress on the soft tyre but when, like his team-mate, he went to hards for the second half, both Ferraris faded away as they simply didn’t work on the least grippy compound.

People were sceptical when new team boss Fred Vasseur suggested in Bahrain that Ferrari’s main issue was set-up rather than anything fundamental, but he has a point. You have to have a pretty good car to have outrun Aston and Mercedes and everyone else in qualifying at two very different venues.

It’s interesting to note that Ferrari has addressed an issue that bugged it last year, and found some straightline speed that will help the drivers in race conditions.

“The first stint went pretty well and then we completely lost ground”

Has some of that been achieved at the expense of cornering performance that might have manifested itself on the harder tyres in Sunday’s race? That is probably one of the issues the team has to dig into this week.

“It’s early stages to have a clear picture about the season,” Vasseur said on Sunday evening. “But so far, I think that the pace was decent yesterday because we made a step forward and we opened the gap compared to Mercedes and Aston, at least in quali with Charles: we were three- or four-tenths faster than Aston Martin.

“The first stint went pretty well also, Charles had a good comeback, but he was on the soft. Carlos was on a decent pace on the first stint with the medium compared to others.

“And then we completely lost ground. It’s where we have to understand the main issue and if we have some improvement to do — it’s clearly on the management of the different compounds over the weekend.”

Fred Vasseur on Ferrari pitwall at 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Vasseur saw his cars drop behind Aston Martin and Mercedes as the race went on


Vasseur was keen to stress that it’s not as bad as that disappointing final classification might have suggested.

“I think we have also to stay calm,” he said. “It’s not that everything is going wrong. I think the issue today was much more about the pace with the hard tyre rather than something else.

“My first feeling from the pitwall is that we were able to extract the maximum potential of the car on some occasions, with the soft on one lap yesterday, or perhaps soft and medium today for the first part of the race.

“We struggled much more with the hard. I don’t know if it’s linked to the track temperature at the end when the temperature starts to go down or it’s relative to the compound. But from my point of view it’s crystal clear that we had a good moment, a good journey into the weekend. And a very poor one at the end of the race.”

Carlos Sainz leads Charles Leclerc in the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Pace dropped away when Sainz and Leclerc fitted hard tyres


Of course tyre management, and especially getting the right downforce level for a given track and balancing speed on the straights against how the tyres are impacted in the corners, is no small matter – it cuts right to the heart of how modern F1 works.

However that can be addressed with homework and experimentation, and Ferrari could well hit the sweet spot on Friday in Melbourne. The point is that making a car that is inherently not fast enough quicker would be a much bigger task.

“The performance in our business, it’s always coming from different pillars,” said Vasseur. “It’s never one thing going well or wrong. And it’s not because that we had a poor stint with the hard that we have to stop the development on the aero, on the suspension, on the engine. We will continue to do our best on every single area of the performance.”

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Vasseur is adamant that Ferrari has a good baseline and there’s no urgent need to do what Mercedes is planning, and binning its core concept and going in a different direction. The team has to hone what it has.

“First you always need to develop the car, even Red Bull will develop the car, and nobody will stop. We did only two races of the 23, we have still 21 to go, and every single team of the grid will continue to develop. Again, I don’t want to push on the positive side, because the results, the outcome of the weekend is not good. And we have to be focused on what is going wrong, not on the positive side.

“It was difficult to know exactly what was the potential of the Red Bull, because Max didn’t do Q3, but at least I had the feeling that compared to Mercedes and Aston Martin, we did a step forward. And I think we are on the right way in terms of development.

“The issue is that we have to stay at this maximum potential all over the weekend.”

Charles Leclerc on track in the 2023 F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Vasseur holds out hope that Red Bull can be caught


Vasseur suggests that the team hasn’t necessarily got it fundamentally wrong by prioritising straightline speed.

“As [with] every single team we have a large choice of wings and the level of downforce,” he said. “It’s always a trade-off at the beginning of the weekend to decide which kind of wings we want to bring. We had probably better top speed than Aston and Mercedes and probably less downforce than them over the weekend. But I’m not sure that is the main reason of the lack of pace.”

“I think Red Bull can be caught. We have to continue to push.”

So does the huge development leap made by Aston Martin over the winter provide some inspiration for Ferrari to do the same within this season?

“Inspiration, I don’t know if that’s the right word,” said Vasseur. “But at least hope: it’s clear that you can develop the car. And I think that in our situation, it’s not that we are always eight-tenths down. Sometimes we are able to be in a good shape, sometimes not.

“We have to understand what’s happened on this kind of situation. But I think that when we will understand we’ll be able to do a decent step.”

Charles Leclerc prepares to go out on track at the 2023 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Ferrari – and its drivers – expect to be winning


Vasseur may try to see some positives, but he’s a realist. He knows that Ferrari has to be capable of winning races, and he is clear about what the priority in the camp now is: “To not bullshit ourselves, that is the most important in this kind of situation is to understand where we are going well and where we are going wrong, because we have positive aspects.

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“For me, the picture is quite clear on the potential of the car is good. Perhaps not enough compared to Red Bull, but we are not able to extract the performance of the car all the time.”

So can Red Bull be caught within this season?

“I think so,” said Vasseur. “We have to continue to push. I think it’s not the right attitude to think about the gap and to say, will we be able to close the gap? We have to be focused on ourselves, that we know when we are weak. And we have to improve on this one, we’ll see what is the outcome when we do a decent step.

“But I think that if you start to think about what could be the future potential and with development and so on, you are lost. We know that we have to improve, but I think it’s the DNA of our sport.

“And it’s not just due to the current situation. We know that we have to work. And we’ll continue and be sure that from tomorrow morning I will be in the office, and I’ll push like hell.”