Curly's Corner: A Nerd's Eye on Formula 1 – United States Grand Prix
Round 16 Recap: Japan
The 2017 Formula 1 World Championship has been more or less a 2-horse race all year long. Not to take anything away from Valtteri Bottas, who has performed admirably in his debut season with Mercedes Benz, or the Red Bull duo of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, who have put together spectacular wins in spite of a car that has been a distant 3rd best, but the focus on 2017 has been on Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. That two horse race has quickly become a one horse race. When I penned (errr, pixeled?) the first edition of this column, I made the bold claim that Vettel had already lost the championship in Singapore. In Malaysia and Japan, that prediction started to come true as Ferrari has just come apart at the seams. First, two broken intake manifolds in as many days destroyed what should have been a Prancing Horse walkover in Malaysia. Then in Japan, a crash by Kimi Raikkonen in practice forced a grid penalty and a stunning DNS by Vettel (due to a broken spark plug of all things) has effectively written off the end of 2017 for the Scuderia. It’s a real shame that Ferrari has fallen apart so quickly and spectacularly. So what happened? Obviously I am not an insider, but I do have a few theories as to what has caused Ferrari to go from pack leader to court jester.
First is management. Will Buxton put together an excellent piece on how Maurizio Arrivabene runs the team and if it is true, it isn’t pretty. I’ve worked under management like this. It is awful. If you remember my old series on building a Formula SAE car, you’ll notice that at one point we had a swept rear suspension, which got canned for something a bit more conventional. What I did not say at the time was this decision was made eleven days before the car was supposed to be a rolling chassis (and consequently when the Senior team made its final presentations). We were already halfway through fabricating suspension parts and ended up throwing it all right into the scrap bin. It’s not like our professor was surprised by this design (it had been a key point of our weight savings goals since almost Day 1), but he decided at the last minute that he didn’t like it and demanded it be changed, for no reason other than “I don’t like it.” Since he gave the grades, we didn’t have much of a choice. It sounds like Ferrari is under the same type of management pressure. “Do it my way or get out of here. This is Ferrari and I’m in charge.” That kind of management style does indeed reap short-term gains as everyone below the boss works feverishly because they are terrified of the consequences of failure, which are always swift, dramatic, and humiliating for those forced to endure them. The problem with management by iron fist is that there is always an exodus. People work hard, both on their assigned project, and to GTFO ASAP. The moment people find an out, they leave, and because there is no love lost between employee and management, they usually leave a mess on the way out: projects that are not finished, unsorted work, and few notes on action items tend to be the result of a pissed off team member leaving in a huff. Jumping back to the SAE car, Senior presentations were done just before Christmas. Half of the Senior class never returned because they were sick of the dictator-like professor. We ended up spending all of January finishing, fixing, or flat out replacing most of the suspension, steering, shifter, and pedals. Did the Seniors produce parts in time to get a grade? Yes, they did. Were those parts even close to functional? Not a chance. In our case, our professor was getting told bold faced lies because he never laid eyes on the car enough to know he was being bullshitted.
This is what is happening at Ferrari right now. Passion and pride are no longer enough to keep the team working towards the same goal and I have a sneaking suspicion that employees are starting to leave the team because they are sick of it all. Speaking with an ex-Chrysler friend of mine, he confirmed that this is the norm at FCA and was one of the main he reasons he defected to GM. All of FCA works under the tyrant model, but nowhere more than Ferrari. How bad is it? Ferrari is no longer seen as the pinnacle of automotive work. You work at Ferrari for a year or two so you can put it on your resume, then leave for greener pastures. It’s quite disheartening that such a great name has to stoop to jackal tactics to survive, but there you have it.
The fallout from 2017 will likely be severe too. This was the year Ferrari was supposed to make their comeback tour. The car was quick, the team was clever, Vettel was on top of his game, and Mercedes was figuring out how to deal with a consistent outside challenge. Now it was always expected Mercedes would begin to catch up. They are still far too good to just give up when they face a little bit of pressure. But while Mercedes dug deep to work out their performance and strategy issues, Ferrari stagnated. When Mercedes began to give Ferrari fits on a regular basis again, that should have been the signal for Ferrari to rise back to the challenge. Instead, Ferrari tripped and fell. Coincidence that the cracks in the Ferrari armor gave way after being embarassed at Monza? I think not.
Elsewhere in the field there was big news. Two of the big stories were that both Max Verstappen and Fernando Alonso had renewed their respective contracts. Max is now tied to Red Bull until 2020, while Alonso is only confirmed through 2018. Alonso said his contract is “long term,” but it would seem that he has an opt-out clause if installing Renault engines does not solve McLaren’s performance problems. Alternatively, Alonso may only have a one-year contract, but with options to continue if 2018 goes well.
Securing Verstappen removes one of the biggest players in the 2018 driver’s market. Earlier this year, all six of the top drivers in F1 were free agents at the end of 2018, which had the potential to really up-end the 2019 starting grid. Two of those major players have been removed almost completely: Vettel re-signed with Ferrari through 2020 before the Belgian GP, and Verstappen is now with RBR for the same period. This still leaves Kimi Raikkonen, Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo, and most importantly, Lewis Hamilton, as free agents in 2019. It’s a safe bet that Hamilton will indeed return to Mercedes in 2019 and beyond (though if, and it is a big IF, the Silver Arrows slip badly in 2018 that may not be as assured as it seems), so the next real move is going to be Ricciardo. There is no question he has the talent to win world championships. But, will he be able to do that with Max Verstappen on the other side of the garage? Fan chatter is Ricciardo could partner with Vettel at Ferrari, but that seems a bit silly. Ferrari is not going to hire a driver who can regularly usurp their golden boy, and Ricciardo isn’t going to sign up to be an obvious number 2 to anybody. The same issue presents itself at Mercedes. Mercedes could still be in the cards if Toto Wolff thinks he can handle two hotshot drivers on his team again. Really, it seems like Ricciardo’s options outside of Red Bull Racing are McLaren (if Alonso leaves), and Renault. Will Renault come good in 2018 and convince the Australian to jump ship? Well Renault only scored 8 points in 2016 and has already scored 40 more than that in 2017. If they can continue at that rate of progress, that would put Renault well ahead of Force India in 2018. It’s definitely within the realm of possibilities…
Speaking of Renault, the United States is the Renault debut of Carlos Sainz Jr. With Jolyon Palmer dispatched, Sainz slips into the yellow and black cars for the first time, in preparation for a full 2018 season with the team. With a strong driver lineup, a growing technical department, and a good team manager in Cyril Abiteboul, Renault is poised to break out of the lower end of the field, and towards the front. Sainz is the last major puzzle piece Renault needs to make that leap and they have secured it. Replacing Sainz at Scuderia Torro Rosso is Pierre Gasly, but with Gasly in Japan to battle for the Super Formula title, Daniil Kvyat was brought back in to replace Gasly for the USGP. Replacing Kvyat in his own car is ex-Red Bull Junior driver, and reigning LeMans winner Brendon Hartley. Following all of this yet? Yeah it’s confusing as hell, made more so because Hartley hasn’t been a Red Bull driver in four years. But, Red Bull has burned through so many kids, their supply of F1 drivers in waiting has been exhausted: none of their up and coming stars can currently earn a Super License for Formula 1, leaving Red Bull no choice but to thumb through their list of exes. Having Hartley as an option leaves some interesting scenarios for 2018: Hartley has no confirmed ride as Porsche is closing its LMP program. He had been linked to a Chip Ganassi IndyCar seat alongside Scott Dixon, but if Red Bull gives him an offer, will he accept? Red Bull has already announced Hartley and Gasly will contest the Mexican GP and Chip isn’t taking any chances: as of yesterday he had signed IndyCar’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Ed Jones to partner Dixon for 2018.
And finally, Fernando Alonso announced he would be racing in the 24 Hours of Daytona in 2018. He still wishes to race in and win LeMans, and running at Daytona would give him a chance to try out sportscars without affecting his F1 season. There haven't been any confirmations of Alonso repeating his Indy experiment, but if McLaren is still slow don’t rule out a Brickyard return.