Formula 1

Mika Hakkinen: Ferrari now have the best car in Formula 1

September 25, 2019January 6th, 2022

FERRARI is on a roll, and Singapore gave the final evidence that the Italian team has now got the best car in Formula 1. After the straight-line speed performance which we saw in Spa and Monza, Singapore was supposed to be different. A bumpy street circuit with lots of changes of direction and some slow speed corners, many people expected this to be a battle between Mercedes and Red Bull Racing. But Ferrari really surprised everyone, perhaps including themselves.

For a long time on Sunday it looked like Charles Leclerc was going to win his third Grand Prix in a row, becoming only the third driver to take three victories after his debut win. The other two drivers to have achieved that during their Formula 1 career are the 1996 World Champion Damon Hill and me, so I really thought Charles would become the third.

It did not work out that way, and I was surprised to see Charles being beaten on pit stop strategy – using the ‘undercut’ – by team-mate Sebastian Vettel. Normally the driver who takes pole position and leads the race gets the favourable strategy. However, in Singapore Ferrari had decided to control the race at a very slow speed on the soft compound tyres in order to make them last as long as possible.  

When Sebastian took his first pit stop to switch onto hard tyres he was almost 4 seconds per lap faster than Charles, and this is why the undercut was so strong. Ultimately, the strategy fell into Sebastian’s hands.  

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There is a debate over whether Sebastian should have been asked to give the lead back to Charles, but after a year without a win it was clearly important for him to stay in front and take the victory. Perhaps Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto felt that a victory for Sebastian, coming after two wins for Charles, would give the team balance, motivate Sebastian and help to move the whole team forward. Achieving a 1-2 victory was the ultimate goal, and it seems Ferrari did not mind in which order they finished.

Charles drove brilliantly all weekend, and I can understand that he felt the race belonged to him. He has proven himself to be very quick, a race winner, with a lot more success ready to come his way. It is surprising to consider that 2nd place felt like a poor result for him in Singapore, but that shows just how competitive his season has been.

This was a dominant performance by Ferrari and, although there is no doubt that their engines are now the most powerful in Formula 1, the result in Singapore shows that the entire car is working well. They brought further upgrades which worked, and suddenly World Championship leader Lewis Hamilton is saying that Ferrari will be difficult to beat everywhere.

Mercedes Benz had a bad race with poor strategy decisions leaving Lewis out too long before his pit stop, and Valtteri Bottas also compromised by the pace he was asked to drive, and the track position in which he found himself. Suddenly, Mercedes looked vulnerable on Sunday, and the fact that neither car made it into the top three came as a shock. Not only were they beaten by Ferrari, but Max Verstappen drove a sensible race for Red Bull Honda to finished third.

Is Mercedes now the third best car in Formula 1? I don’t think so. There is no doubt that Ferrari has made huge progress this year, for which Mattia Binotto and his team should be congratulated. They have reignited the excitement in Formula 1.

It is also true that Red Bull and Honda are working well together, and that Max has matured as a driver this year. Their package is weak in some aspects, but a threat at every race.

Mercedes faces the problem in finding even more performance from its impressive engines, which is essential to match Ferrari’s pace on the straights, and remaining calm when under pressure. Having dominated Formula 1 for five years, the team is not used to being beaten to pole position and overtaken during races. Reacting to competition is important, but it is also important not to overreact.

Attention now turns, only a few days later, to Sochi for the Russian Grand Prix. This is a track where Mercedes has really dominated since the hybrid era of Formula 1 began in 2014. They have won all five Russian Grands Prix, with Lewis winning 3 times, Valtteri in 2017 and Nico Rosberg back in 2016. The reigning World Champions currently lead both World Championships by a long way but they will arrive in Sochi feeling genuine pressure.

Ferrari has the performance needed to take the fight to Mercedes this weekend. Both their drivers have won in recent weeks, and with Max Verstappen’s Red Bull Honda likely to be in the mix, I expect we are in for another unpredictable and close weekend. Fantastic for Formula 1.