The Italian team’s preseason expectations of title contention have been blown out of the water by an unprecedented display of Mercedes dominance. Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton have led the German team to four one-two finishes to open the year, setting the record for the best start to an F1 season in history.
The points standings are revealing. Mercedes holds a 74-point lead over Ferrari, just 10 shy of its 2018 championship-winning margin, while Bottas leads Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc by 35 and 40 points respectively on the drivers table.
With 17 of 21 rounds remaining, Ferrari has time aplenty to fight back, but the question is whether it can.
Such doubt is a far cry from the preseason optimism emanating from the Scuderia. Winter testing is notoriously difficult to read, but paddock consensus confidently picked Ferrari as the standout performer while Mercedes appeared to struggle under new regulations.
Making the season’s results tally with those expectations has been difficult for pundits and Ferrari alike. Mercedes dominated in Australia and had a small but decisive edge in China and Azerbaijan. Only in Bahrain did Ferrari show race-winning pace before engine problems cruelled Charles Leclerc’s charge.
“Four races in the season, no win for Ferrari, four wins for Mercedes – no doubt they are very strong, certainly they’ve got a slightly better car,” Ferrari principal Mattia Binotto conceded after defeat in Baku. “But I think that the gap is not so big and the points of the results are not reflecting the true potential of the cars.”
The matter of true potential has exercised minds so far this season, but the question will be put to rest at the Spanish Grand Prix on May 12, the first race of the European leg of the season.
The Spanish race is run on the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the same circuit used for preseason testing. Drivers and engineers know each of the 16 turns inside out, which means there’s nowhere to hide for a team performing badly.
If Ferrari turns up in Barcelona this weekend and is unable to replicate the sort of performance it demonstrated during preseason testing on the same track, serious questions will be asked about the legitimacy of its championship campaign.
“I’m pretty sure [Mercedes] will be very strong as well in Barcelona,” Binotto said. “But more important I think is being focused on ourselves.
“We’ve got the potential for pole, and if you’ve got a car fast enough to score potentially the pole, you’ve got a good car overall.
“We need to look at our weaknesses and try to address them.”
Addressing his team’s shortcomings – operational as well as mechanical, for even in execution the team has been found lacking – may go some way to closing the gap, but Binotto must also be worried that Spain will serve only to validate that Mercedes has made substantial steps since March.
The German marque has been confidently building upon the B-spec aero package it brought late to preseason testing, enough to keep ahead of Ferrari even when the Italians fast-tracked a first major update to Baku. The reigning constructors champion has a ferocious history of development, and the concern for the Scuderia must be that its own slow progress understanding its machine has allowed its rival a costly head start.
To all these questions Spain will finally reveal some hard answers, and it’s no exaggeration to say the title could be at stake.