Ferrari shocks fans in Bahrain,and not for good
After a long winter of hard work, hours of preparation, and promises made by the Maranello-based team, the "Tifosi" expected a whole different start to the 2023 season.
As Max Verstappen won his second Formula 1 world championship last year, Ferrari fans were ready to take back their revenge, placing their hopes in Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz, and new team principal Frederic Vasseur. As declared during the SF-23 presentation on February 14th, the Scuderia had put in many hours of work to fix last year's car issues and weaknesses. To mention one: the reliability issue and straight-line speed.
With the start of winter testing and the season opener getting closer and closer, the fans couldn't wait to see whether the new car would be a championship contender and bring back the glory to Maranello after already too many years. Pre-season testing wasn't as promising as last year's, but everyone in the team was happy about the work done during the three days, and no one wanted to jump to conclusions before the first official race of the 2023 campaign.
Hope fading away
The hope of fighting for wins and hopefully the championship was high, but it slowly faded away starting on Friday during the two free practice sessions. In fact, both Red Bulls seemed to have a more competitive pace as well as Fernando Alonso with his AMR23.
Not only that, Ferrari fans started getting a bit concerned as the new one-pylon rear wing brought on the last day of testing (which wasn't used as the DRS system failed) also gave issues due to heavy shaking. The "Tifosi" were preoccupied since it was rumored this new wing would massively help the SF-23 to unlock even more straight-line speed and overall pace throughout the whole lap.
Anyway, there was no reason to panic, it was only Friday, and, usually, at Ferrari, the overnight work between FP1, FP2, and Saturday pays off and results in better performance. That was what seemed to have happened: in qualifying, Leclerc was not too far off Max Verstappen, and even Sainz, who struggled more with the balance of the car, did not do so badly as he finished P4.
However, the reality check for Ferrari arrived on Sunday. If Leclerc managed to jump Sergio Perez at the start, also thanks to the well-thought strategy of saving a set of soft tires, the real struggle for the Scuderia began with the second stint. After the first pit stop, Leclerc was losing 0.9 seconds from the two Red Bull cars, and Sainz was more or less on the same times as his teammate. Plus, despite having the hard tires, Ferrari did the same amount of laps as Verstappen and Perez on the softs, showing how bad the tire degradation of the SF-23 is.
This seems to be one of the weakest points of the new Ferrari, which generates too high temperatures on the rear tires, and it becomes difficult for the drivers to set competitive laps while also managing the tires. Moreover, as the race progressed, also Aston Martin, especially with Alonso, proved to be even faster than the two Ferraris, and the AMR23 was more gentle on the tires, too. The Spaniard managed to easily overtake Sainz, and he would have probably caught Leclerc too in the final laps.
If that wasn't enough, on lap 41, Leclerc's car had an issue, and the Monegasque had to retire while being in the fight for the podium. The issue was with the energy store and the control electronics, parts that were changed right before the start of the Grand Prix (rumors suggest that there was a mistake in the assembly of those parts). Anyway, a DNF in the first race is unacceptable for Ferrari, considering that Leclerc might get a penalty as early as Jeddah since the FIA allows only two of the components changed on the Monegasque's car. It is intolerable also because Ferrari praised the hard work done over the winter to overcome the reliability issues.
Leclerc's DNF explained
One of the most asked questions was 'what caused the issue?'. We've seen that during free practice but also in qualifying and the race, Ferrari still had quite a lot of bouncing and porpoising. These effects might have created vibrations that overheated the engine or some of its parts, and then caused the issue that forced Leclerc to retire.
Sainz where are you?
On Sainz's side, the race was probably even tougher, but at least he managed to finish it. The Spaniard struggled to find pace after testing, and he was never as competitive as Leclerc.
What to expect from Ferrari
So, what's there to save for Ferrari? Is 2023 already over, or can the Scuderia still turn things around?
Well, the Maranello-based team does not have a second, different car ready to bring to the track as Mercedes might have. However, it will focus on updating specific parts of the SF-23 to solve the problems seen in Bahrain. An example might be the single-pylon rear wing which should help find more downforce without sacrificing the top speed, and it should also help with the balance, making the floor work in a better way.
Furthermore, should reliability issues not be a problem like in Bahrain, Ferrari might still be competitive in low downforce and fast tracks like Jeddah or Monza.
To add to that, the pit stops were almost perfect, and the strategy too was correct, which is not an element to underestimate knowing what happened last year.
The distance to Red Bull is still huge, and the fight with Aston Martin and Mercedes is very tight. Despite that, Ferrari seems to have the potential in the SF-23, but the key is to being able to unlock it, even more so in the race, where the working window of the car is minimal.