For Ferrari, the runner-up, complacency is not the problem. The issue, said Maurizio Arrivabene, the team principal, is its mind-set. The team needs to see victory as the rule, not as the exception.
“The habit to win, it’s very simple,” he said in an interview. “If you are doing one-two it doesn’t have to be an exceptional event,” he said, referring to finishing first and second in a race. “It must be a habit, as I said. In that way you are changing, and you swap your mentality from a fighter to a winner.”
He had a very similar message at the Ferrari Finali Mondiali, a competition unaffiliated with Formula One, in early November.
“There are areas where we are superior, others where they are,” he said of Mercedes. “But I think we still lack the habit of winning. For them to have a one-two is almost ordinary. For us, it is still an exceptional event. We must be more aware of our means and not be afraid of winning.
“In tennis, they call it il braccino: the fear of winning that comes when you are close to the goal. We must trust ourselves and make the victory a good habit.”
Ferrari was widely viewed as having the strongest car for 2018, one that would give Mercedes a strong challenge for the title, although Sebastian Vettel, the Ferrari driver and four-time world champion, said his car was not the best.
“It is absolutely true to say we have a very strong car, but people’s perception that we had a dominant car — I don’t think it was true,” he said.
But where the team did dominate was in tire life. Where Mercedes sometimes struggled with peak tire performance, Ferrari was able to achieve higher speeds and longer runs from the same tires used by its rivals.
In a sport where every hundredth of a second makes a difference, such an advantage is important. But Ferrari lost its advantage many times through strategic misfires — sending drivers out at the wrong time and on the wrong tires in qualifying, or choosing poor pit-stop strategies. Even with allowances for human error, there were clear signs of mismanagement inside the team.
And some of that human error was Vettel’s, who was widely criticised for a variety of mistakes that cost the team points, especially at the German Grand Prix, when he crashed out of the race after having started at pole. Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes came from behind and won the race.
At the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday, the season’s last race, Arrivabene dismissed the criticism of his driver. “We started the season in very good shape, and then as Sebastian said yesterday, he made mistakes, then from Monza onwards we were not there with the car and this is a fact, too.
“I don’t want to point the finger at the team or on the driver. If we are losing, we are losing together. If we are winning, we are winning together. And that’s it.”
For a team boss to defend his employee should not be unusual, but it represents a change in attitude at Ferrari. In recent years, the team has suffered from a blame culture that not only led to the loss of some crucial skilled staff members to rival outfits, including to Mercedes, but also created a climate of fear within the team that made it risk-averse in car design and in race strategy.
To help steer the team, it finally hired a sporting director, a position that had been vacant since the departure of Massimo Rivola in late 2016.
The new director, Laurent Mekies, formerly with the International Automobile Federation, known by its French acronym FIA, made his first appearance in the team paddock at Abu Dhabi.
A sporting director’s role is organisational. Akin to a team manager, a Formula One sporting director represents his team in senior-level technical discussions of regulatory changes. But the day-to-day of the job also involves managing team personnel, budgets and the logistics of racing to ensure the smooth running of the team.
That Ferrari has lacked such a presence for two years in which they have had a competitive car but failed to win is telling. Without the oversight of someone tasked with keeping the show on the road, small problems can escalate into bigger issues. A united and organised Ferrari, led by a boss unwilling to blame individual employees, and with a highly respected sporting director in place for the 2019 season, will be a much stronger team. Of course, Ferrari carried a similar expectation into this season.
© 2018 The New York Times