Ferrari’s gains see it emerge as Red Bull’s nearest rival

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SUZUKA, Japan — Although still 20 seconds shy of Max Verstappen‘s Red Bull at the chequered flag, Ferrari’s performance at the Japanese Grand Prix showed just how much progress the team has made with its winter of car development. Just six months ago, the Italian team finished the same race 40 seconds adrift of race winner Verstappen, ranking fourth and sixth in the final classification compared to Sunday’s third and fourth.

Beating Red Bull in a straight fight (i.e., without the help of a Verstappen retirement, as happened in Australia this year) still seems like a stretch, but on the right circuit in the right circumstances, Ferrari is starting to look more like a serious competitor.

Suzuka, with its tyre-torturing long duration and high-speed corners, was always going to provide a challenge for Ferrari and play to the strengths of Red Bull. McLaren, too, was expected to hold an edge over Ferrari — as it did on the same track last year and as it still did over a single lap in qualifying on Saturday — but over a race distance, Ferrari came out on top.

“We exactly improved the car in the places that we wanted to improve it, and Suzuka proves it,” Carlos Sainz, who finished third in Japan on Sunday, said of his team’s progress. “Still, places like Suzuka, we are not as quick as the Red Bull, which is the target, but as soon as we bring a good upgrade to the car that goes in the right direction, hopefully it can get us closer.

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“We’ve improved everywhere, and especially in the race pace. It also allows us to have more strategic flexibility that last year we didn’t have. It allows me to go forward in the races and instead of looking in my mirrors all the time to offset myself with strategy, I can then overtake people, which is something that last year wasn’t on the cards at any point last year.

“So, I’m happy and it makes me enjoy the racing more.”

Ferrari’s superior tyre strategy at Suzuka was key to both Sainz and teammate Charles Leclerc beating fifth-placed Lando Norris on Sunday. For several seasons, the team has received regular and often justified criticism for the tyre strategy decisions made by its pit wall. But so far this year, it’s hard to find fault in the team’s race operations.

The team made changes within its strategy department soon after the arrival of team principal Frédéric Vasseur last year, including replacing chief strategist Iñaki Rueda with Ravin Jain. Ferrari then went through a period of reviewing and refining its in-race decision-making processes. Undoubtedly, those changes have been effective, but the team has also benefitted from significant improvements with its car, specifically the way it uses its tyres.

Having a car that doesn’t haemorrhage performance due to tyre degradation (the loss of tyre performance per lap, often as a result of overheating) means a whole suite of strategy options are suddenly opened up at each race. While Ferrari’s drivers often had to drive significantly off the pace last year in order to preserve tyres or pit out of sequence with rivals, they now have a new weapon in their arsenal.

“I think we’ve made progress on strategy over the last three years, progressively, but if you see a jump this year on strategy, it’s purely down to the car,” Sainz said. “I think just having a car that allows you to have flexibility on strategy is something that last year we couldn’t have.

“So, we were boxed in to stop at certain laps. We couldn’t extend [stints]. We had so much [degradation] that it looked always like people could extend and then come back on us on a harder tyre.

“Last year, we were just zero flexible and we couldn’t do anything without racing. So it looked like we were not getting the strategy right a lot of times.

“But when you have a car that is better on tyres, two drivers that can push on the car more often and you have that extra flexibility, your strategy also looks better. And with this, I’m not underestimating the progress we’ve done, it’s just I really think this helps a lot.”

The Japanese Grand Prix was a perfect example of the additional strategic flexibility Ferrari now has. Leclerc was able to pull off a one-stop strategy following the lap-one red-flag stoppage, completing the first 25 laps thereafter on one set of medium tyres while Norris’ McLaren completed the same distance on a set of mediums and a set of hards, falling behind Leclerc as a result of the additional stop. McLaren was coaxed into making Norris’ second stop early by the possibility of losing a place to Mercedes’ George Russell, who was attempting but couldn’t pull off the same strategy as Leclerc, but the fact that Ferrari chose a plan, stuck to it and gained four positions as a result, shows just how far the team has come.

Meanwhile, Sainz was on a two-stop strategy akin to Norris, but because Ferrari, confident in its pace, wasn’t as concerned about the threat from rival cars making a one-stop strategy, it opted to go longer on each stint compared to Norris. That allowed Sainz to make his final stop ten laps later than Norris, giving him fresher tyres to attack and pass the McLaren toward the end of the race.

“I think from the beginning of the season, we are much better on the tyre management and degradation, we were able to do the fastest lap in Jeddah and Melbourne on the last lap,” Vasseur said. “It was almost the case today for one-tenth, I think, and I think we did a good step forward with this one.

“We worked a lot on our weaknesses, and we improved massively on the tyre management, drivers, strategy and the team. For sure, we have some other weaknesses and we have to improve some other elements if we want to do a better job, but I think this one is very well under control now.”

Vasseur hinted that making the step forward in tyre management over the winter has come at the cost of some outright performance, but the net gains versus Red Bull have been clear when comparing last year’s gaps at the chequered flag to this year’s. In Bahrain, Sainz was 23 seconds closer to Verstappen than he had been in 2023; in Saudi Arabia, the gap was 17 seconds smaller the last year; in Australia, Ferrari took a one-two victory after Verstappen retired; and in Japan, the gap was 20 seconds smaller than the same race six months ago.

“I think we made a huge step forward on the high speed compared to last year, and for sure Suzuka is a good example,” Vasseur added. “And on the tyre management, now we have our weaknesses today, for sure it was a compromise, you take from somewhere and then somewhere else.

“But overall, if you compare with Red Bull, the last four events last year and the first four events this season, a decent step forward. The target for us is for sure they are a little bit ahead, but to put them under pressure, with pressure you are doing more mistakes.”

Unless Red Bull slipped up with its car development over the winter, it always seemed unlikely Ferrari would close the gap in the first half of the season. Even now, it’s hard to imagine anyone challenging Verstappen in a straight fight until major upgrades are introduced, but the clear step made at the start of the season has generated a degree of hope at Ferrari that such a feat will become possible.

“I think they are definitely going to have an advantage in the first third of the season until we bring one or two upgrades that makes us fight them more consistently,” Sainz said. “By that time maybe it’s a bit too late [to challenge for a title] with the advantage that they might have on the championship.

“In the meantime, we need more Australias! Which I don’t see Red Bull, as a team, making these mistakes very often.”

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