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09 Sep
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As Ferrari Falls Further Behind in F1, Its Championship Hopes Dim

For the first time in three years, Ferrari will go to its home Formula 1 race in Italy this weekend with a realistic chance of victory.

Ferrari lacked a car that was quick enough to fight for wins in 2020 and 2021, but started this year by finishing first and second in Bahrain. It was a sign of its resurgence and fueled its hope for a championship.

But against the reigning world champion, Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and his Red Bull team, Ferrari has struggled to maintain a sustained challenge. Of the first 15 races, Ferrari won four; Verstappen alone won 10.

“The first part of the season has been full of highs or lows,” said Charles Leclerc of Monaco, Ferrari’s leading driver.

Leclerc has three wins, but it could easily be more. He was leading the race in Spain before an engine failure forced him to retire. The same thing happened in Azerbaijan a few weeks later. In France, he lost control of his car, which spun into the barrier as he once again dropped from the lead. On each occasion, Verstappen capitalized to win the race.

The points lost have all added up and caused Leclerc to fall 109 points behind Verstappen, a gap the Ferrari driver admitted would be “extremely difficult” to make up.

But Leclerc’s efforts have not been helped by some of the decisions Ferrari has made with its strategy. At the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Leclerc was leading until a pit stop when Ferrari decided to fit his car with hard tires. Although it is the most durable tire available to teams, it also takes longer to warm up, and that caused Leclerc to fall behind his rivals, who opted for the soft or medium tires in the colder conditions. He ultimately finished sixth; Verstappen won again.

In Belgium, Leclerc had to fight from the back of the field because of a team penalty for changing his engine, and was then forced to pit early to remove a piece of Verstappen’s plastic helmet visor that he had discarded and then got stuck in Leclerc’s front brake duct.

Running fifth with two laps remaining, Ferrari asked Leclerc to pit for fresh tires so he could try and earn a point by setting the fastest lap. He not only failed to set the fastest lap, but also lost a place after another penalty for speeding in the pit lane.

Even with the championship slipping further away, Leclerc said that he was not upset with Ferrari’s strategy and that it was more frustrating to see the difference in speed between his team and Red Bull.

“That is the thing we need to work on,” he said, after seeing Verstappen win again in Belgium.

Fernando Alonso of Alpine said he was not surprised to see Ferrari take what seemed like an unnecessary risk. “Ferrari has been doing strange things,” he said. “That was another strange thing.”

Mattia Binotto, the team principal of Ferrari, defended the team’s strategy and said there was “no need at all” to make any changes.

“Sometimes we are not making mistakes when it may have been perceived as a mistake. I think that the call to stop him was the right call,” he said about Belgium. “You need to be brave in F1.”

The scrutiny Ferrari faces comes with the territory of being Formula 1’s most famous and successful team, holding a record number of wins and championships. But it is also linked to national significance: The team’s fans are passionate, and the Italian media does not hold back when things are not going well.

Carlos Sainz Jr. of Spain, Leclerc’s teammate, admitted he felt the criticism was “a bit tougher” racing for Ferrari compared with his previous teams in Formula 1.

“When there was a big mistake on strategy, no one would come and point it out and criticize you and put you down to earth as much as they do when you are in Ferrari,” he said. “In Ferrari, everything seems bigger. The victory is bigger, the mistake is bigger. It’s something I’m adapting to.”

Some of Ferrari’s errors have made life easier for Verstappen and Red Bull. They look set to win the championships with ease. Verstappen said that the way Red Bull had learned from its mistakes was important to its success.

“Some races we have benefited from little errors or retirements,” said Verstappen, who noted that Red Bull also suffered setbacks early in the year. A fuel pump problem meant he did not finish two of the first three races.

“There’s still a lot of races to go where things can go wrong also for us,” he added. “We have to be very focused on not making mistakes.”

Stefano Domenicali, the chief executive of Formula 1, felt that when it came to Ferrari, you could “never say never.” He has experience in title comebacks, having worked at Ferrari in 2007 when Kimi Raikkonen overturned a 17-point gap with only 20 remaining in the final two races to win the championship.

“No one was expecting that,” Domenicali said. “I know it’s a big number, but I don’t see why Ferrari shouldn’t get back again in the fight with Red Bull.”

Leclerc was adamant that Ferrari remained united despite the setbacks.

“We’ve been working very unified as a team,” he said. “That helped us to be at the level where we are at in terms of performance today. And this is exactly the same thing that we are trying to do now to get better.”

The fragile championship outlook makes Sunday’s race at the Monza track, on the outskirts of Milan, more significant than usual for Ferrari. But Sainz called the prospect of fighting for victory at his team’s home race in front of a full crowd “the best possible scenario you can have as a racing driver.”

He vowed to fully enjoy the weekend, despite the added commitments that come with Ferrari’s home race.

“There’s always extra things, extra events, extra pressure,” he said. “Sometimes maybe they don’t allow you to open your eyes and see this is actually happening: I’m racing for Ferrari at Monza in a competitive car.”

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