Clip The Apex
If you started watching F1 in 2013, you could be forgiven for thinking that Ferrari and McLaren are nothing more than upper-midfield teams and not the giants that they really are. Ferrari haven't won a race since May 2013, when Alonso won the Spanish grand prix. For McLaren it's even longer, in November 2012 Button won the Brazilian grand prix. Since McLaren's first season in 1966, I believe this is the longest period during which neither McLaren nor Ferrari have won a race.
So what's gone wrong? None of this will be new for most of you but the story begins in 2008. Both McLaren and Ferrari were fighting tooth and nail for the championship up until the last race of the season, with Hamilton ultimately winning his first title in that dramatic last lap which saw Massa's family celebrating only for Lewis to overtake Glock in the final few corners and take it for himself. At this point McLaren or Ferrari had won 9 out of the last 11 WDCs and constructors championships. 2009 then brought the major aerodynamics regulations overhaul, and whilst the likes of Adrian Newey and Ross Brawn were completely focused on creating a winning package for F1's future during 2008, McLaren and Ferrari had been battling it out trying to gain a development edge in the 2008 championship and were left seriously compromised in their 2009 efforts. Neither McLaren nor Ferrari have won a championship since (joint longest period since the 9 seasons between 1965 and 1973, in which Lotus, Brabham, Matra and Tyrrell won championships).
With the resources and experience of Ferrari and McLaren, though, you would have expected them to find their way back to the top again pretty quickly but it hasn't happened for different reasons. Although Alonso was able to drag the Ferrari close to championships, the Ferrari design team has completely failed to build a car that even comes close to Red Bull in terms of mechanical and aerodynamic grip. McLaren, on the other hand, gradually closed the gap to Red Bull and probably built a car that was capable of winning the championship in 2012, only to completely drop the ball in the first half of the season with a multitude of errors (pit stops, fuel loads etc.) and then with reliability in the second half of the season. They then inexplicably got it completely wrong in 2013 and fell way back down in to the midfield.
The continued failures have eventually seen both teams lose arguably the two best drivers on the grid to try to take advantage of the change, to the V6 engines in pastures new. Hamilton, no doubt frustrated by the 2012 season, left McLaren at the end of 2012 to move to the emerging and now dominant Mercedes (with Ross Brawn again masterminding the regulations transition). Alonso finally gave up on Ferrari at the end of last year after another season spent in a mediocre chassis now coupled with a mediocre engine. The saving grace for McLaren is that they convinced Alonso to move back to Woking despite their history. Ferrari haven't done too badly either, nabbing a 4 time world champion in Vettel, although time will tell if he can fill Alonso's shoes after suffering a pretty comprehensive defeat by Ricciardo in 2014.
What are the prospects for each of them now, then? Although it's now been six seasons without a championship and almost 2 seasons without a win for either team, they are still two of the power houses of F1 and surely they will find their way back to the top eventually.
In their efforts, McLaren have made two key choices (aside from grabbing Alonso) - becoming the lead team for the new Honda V6 and hiring Peter Prodromou from Red Bull. Now the engines have again become a key factor in performance, it would seem that the non-manufacturer teams have little chance of winning championships as they have to base their design around the choices made by the lead team. Although it seems unlikely that Honda will be able to compete with the Mercedes engine package straight away, both McLaren and Honda have a hugely successful history with V6 engines and the expectation is that they'll be right up there sooner or later. On the design side, Prodromou brings with him a wealth of knowledge about the incredible aerodynamics package on the Red Bull and will no doubt drive the team forward in that way, although long term the question will be whether he can stand on his own without the guidance of Newey.
Ferrari are not going to run anything other than a Ferrari engine anytime soon so they are "stuck" trying to get their V6 and associated energy recovery systems on to the level of Mercedes'. They still have the benefit of a year's worth of experience over Honda, though, and with the regulations allowing a large proportion of the power train to be changed this year they will almost certainly make a large performance step in this area. Having said that, there is absolutely no doubt that 2015 is a year of transition for Ferrari as they have completely overhauled their staff over the course of the last year in response to continued poor performance, I've lost count of all the changes, but Domenicali was replaced by Mattiacci to be replaced by Arrivabene at the top, as well as other high profile departures such as Pat Fry and Nikolas Tombazis. The emphasis is now on James Allison, who proved his talent at Lotus, to develop a championship winning car. This year's design, though, will no doubt be compromised by the major restructuring of the team.
My two questions for you are: who will be the next to win a race between the two, and who will win a championship next? For me the decision comes down to:
- Alonso vs. Vettel
- Prodromou vs. Allison
- Honda vs. Ferrari engine.
Its been announced this week that Belgian Mclaren development driver Stoffel Vandoorne will return to the GP2 series in 2015 again driving for the ART team. Vandoorne is hoping a successful championship year with ART will be the pathway for him to get into F1 for 2016, preferably with Mclaren, but is that actually really likely to happen?
Vandoorne’s potential is not in any doubt. He won the F4 Eurocup title in 2010 and then had a close tussle with Dani Kvyat in Eurocup 2.0 in 2012, a tussle he eventually won and took the title. In 2013 he jumped up to the WSR 3.5 series and scored a win on his debut. He scored 4 wins in total with 10 podiums in 17 races, all this in the much unfancied Fortec car as well. He was piped to the title by fellow Mclaren development driver Kevin Magnussen who had already done a year in the series and was driving the all mighty DAMS car. K-Mag landed himself an F1 seat with Mclaren and Vandoorne switched feeder series to join ART in GP2. Once again Vandoorne scored a win on his debut before suffering the same fate the majority of rookies do when joining GP2 and falling backwards whilst getting used to the difficult Pirelli tyres. To be fair to Vandoorne this only lasted for a few rounds and by the time he got to round 7 in Austria he was back up there with the front runners. Unfortunately for him Jolyon Palmer, again in a mighty DAMS car, was already out of sight but he did manage to haul back to 2nd in the championship with a further 3 wins and 5 podiums. He was cost better results by some questionable tactical decision by ART on occasions too, especially when the failed to pit him under the safety car when the entire rest of the field did leaving him in an almost impossible position. Anyone who saw his comeback drive that day can’t have failed to be impressed.