Ferrari’s decline: How the Prancing Horse stuttered, rather than galloped into their 1000th grand prix

Remember the 2016 Formula One Canadian Grand Prix? No, not the race itself, but the interviews afterwards. An affable Sebastian Vettel uttered a one-liner that has stuck with me ever since: “Everybody’s a Ferrari fan. Even if they are not, they (still) are a Ferrari fan”. As the Scuderia recently competed in their 1000th grand prix on their home turf at Mugello, I could not help but wonder whether this is still the case and if so, why.

2008 F1 Championship runner-up for Ferrari, Felipe Massa, once said: “In the Ferrari team, if you win you have pressure, if you are not winning (…) you have even more”. Rob Smedley, his long-time race engineer confirmed this, but noted the outstanding rewards that come with the unparalleled pressure of performing at a quasi-“national institution” like Ferrari: “You are in this fish bowl with all the eyes of Italy looking at you, but (…) If you withstood the test, Ferrari will always be (in) your heart”.

Indeed, since the glorious Schumacher days of 2000-2004, many have taken the ‘Ferrari test’; from the team’s last drivers’ champion in 2007, Kimi Raikkonen, to Red Bull’s four-time champion, Sebastian Vettel. Intriguingly, I believe that Ferrari’s past dominance in the sport is so apparent in any driver’s mind to make them confident that they can revive it themselves with the team. This is despite this dominance peaking in the 2000s, long ago enough to be considered a piece of sporting history.

I was so happy for Vettel when he switched to Ferrari back in 2015, because I felt he had rediscovered the joy of his early Red Bull days. That, I could tell from his first laps around Fiorano, in the winter of 2014. His interactions with the team before and throughout 2015 and his general body language proved he was truly elated to drive for the team of his childhood hero, Michael Schumacher.

In the build-up to his first season in Maranello, Vettel delightfully stated: “Everything is red and it is a very special colour because it means so much (and it has) so much history”. Back then, I really thought that Sebastian had found a new home. He seemed genuinely fulfilled and at peace, always ready to joke about the Mercedes dominance. By embracing the so-called ‘Ferrari way’, he seemed confident that he could steer them back to their championship-winning ways of the past.

Fast-forward to 2020, and the laughter in his team’s radio has quite literally turned into tears, anger and resignation for Vettel, unceremoniously let go by the team without a single title success. I find Sebastian’s rise and fall from grace with the team and the tifosi very telling in terms of why Ferrari is the promised land of any racing driver.

Expectations are astronomical, so demises can occur in an instant, even for someone with the third most grand prix victories in F1 history. Nonetheless, it is this relentless pressure and striving for excellence that makes Ferrari so appealing. The ‘Ferrari way’ is less of a strategy and more a way of life for supporters of the prancing horse.

Vettel’s seriously gifted teammate, Charles Leclerc will hope to succeed where Vettel failed. Being recently mentioned along with Mario Andretti or Alain Prost – both former champions for the Scuderia – Charles commented: “It feels unreal”. However, the Monegasque readily admitted, he has a long way until he can rise to the level of such greats. His soon-to be teammate, Carlos Sainz, welcomes the complexity of the Ferrari environment, considering it the due “preparation” for any aspiring world champion.

Whether Sainz and Leclerc can succeed where their predecessors failed remains to be seen. However, despite a lack of championship success in over a decade, F1’s biggest team remains the ultimate destination for young talents and versed champions alike.

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Sebastian Lajos

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January 2022
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