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Formula 1

How Ferrari became Red Bull’s biggest F1 threat

by Edd Straw
8 min read

Second place has always been seen as a failure for a team of Ferrari’s size and ambition. So being the best of the rest behind Red Bull so far in 2024 is no cause for celebration.

But Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Maranello. This is a team that, for all its illustrious history and resources, racked up a record-equalling 15th season without a world championship in 2023.

And there's every sign that 2024 will help Ferrari break that record. Proof more than ever that it's not quick fixes or answers that solve Ferrari's woes, but gradual long-term improvement.

And how Ferrari has produced a car that is comprehensively F1's second-fastest car says an awful lot about the team's chances of catching Red Bull in the longer term.

Here's what it has improved and what it still needs to find:

A flying start

In terms of single-lap pace, the Ferrari SF-24 is on average the second fastest car. In Bahrain, Charles Leclerc actually set the quickest individual lap of the weekend in Q2, but couldn’t repeat that to take pole position.

But in three of the four races so far, Ferrari has been the leading non-Red Bull in qualifying.

And while McLaren driver Lando Norris got ahead of the Ferraris in qualifying at Suzuka, Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc finished ahead of him in the race on two different strategies.

That maintained Ferrari’s 100% record of being the best-placed non-Red Bull in races this year. And crucially this was at a track where it was emphatically beaten by McLaren just six months ago.

Max Verstappen's brake problems undoubtedly aided Sainz's Melbourne victory but the team (rightly) fancied its chances of challenging Red Bull in a straight fight anyway.

That race win and four other podiums finishes have added up to Ferrari being comfortably second in the constructors’ championship with 120 points.

The 120 points it has racked up so far is Ferrari’s second-highest tally at this stage in the season of the past decade, just four points behind where it was at this stage of 2022 at a point where it was posing a genuine championship threat to Red Bull - albeit only temporarily. And even higher than the early stages of multiple unsuccessful Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel's title charges.

The results prove it. Ferrari is on the up and has cured some fundamental weaknesses. It's 21 points back from Red Bull in the constructors' standings.


A key objective for Ferrari was eliminating the tendency of its cars since the start of 2022 to work its tyres too hard in the race. That led to a big offset between its strong qualifying performance and its weaker race pace.

That Ferrari has racked up 19 pole positions in the previous two seasons yet won only five races is telling. Too often in races it was fighting a rearguard action thanks to what Carlos Sainz called "terrible tyre management", a weakness that’s been tackled this year.

Ferrari still isn’t at Red Bull's level in terms of tyre management. As Leclerc has pointed out, at high-degradation tracks life is still a bit tricky for Ferrari.

But this is a big step forward and means Ferrari is able to attack more in races rather than looking backwards. And improved race pace means greater strategic flexibility.

"We've improved everywhere, and especially in the race pace," Sainz said.

"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 and then overtake people, which is something that last year wasn't on the cards at any point."

Ferrari team boss Fred Vasseur declared its tyre woes "well under control now" after Leclerc pulled off a one-stop strategy that required a 25-lap stint on mediums - the furthest any driver went on the C2 tyre at Suzuka.

Sainz even put a lot of the optics around his standout start to 2024 down to Ferrari's improvement.

"People also might think I'm in a better moment driving [better] and everything, but the reality is just in Formula 1, a car is very important.

"This year, I'm in a very good moment. I'm driving at a high level, but at the same time, having a car that just allows you to go a bit longer, allows you to be a bit closer in dirty air and play around a bit more with strategy, just allows you to shine a bit more.

"That's why it's important in the career of a driver also to be in a [good] car, because last year in the races we looked like we were always going backwards, always defending. It was difficult to do good races.

"This year, suddenly three races, two podiums, a lot of overtaking, a win. It's a completely different picture. It shows that in this sport that is very important too."


One of the main reasons Ferrari has made the aforementioned gains on tyre management is that the peakiness of the aerodynamics of the car has been improved dramatically. If you have a car that’s prone to stalling aerodynamically, then you will take more out of the tyres in those moments.

But the effect was wider than that, sapping the confidence from the drivers and making the car particularly unstable when in turbulent air behind other cars.

This was all down to the sensitivity of the car aerodynamically when in yaw - i.e. while turning through corners.

In a narrow window, when all was right, it worked well but the drivers never really knew when the rear end might give up. As a result, for much of last season the car needed a little understeer dialled into it to calm it down, which was particularly troubling for Leclerc. And although progress was made in the second half of last season, this was still a problem.

Fundamentally, this came down to the limitations of the outwash concept Ferrari opted for at the start of 2022 as opposed to the downwash focus that has become ubiquitous. Drivers complained endlessly about the unpredictability of the car in 2023, but that’s dramatically improved this year.

The sidepod treatment of the SF-24 is some of the basis of this and while Ferrari is still some way behind in developing this approach, it’s on the right track and has been rewarded with greatly improved consistency.

Its performance at Suzuka was evidence of that given the improved performance in the fast corners. Ferrari has made a huge step forward in the high-speed corners with its drivers feeling much more confidence in the car through them.

The car is not perfect and Leclerc has pointed out there are still improvements to be made in terms of predictability.

But what matters is what Ferrari characterised as a brand-new car for 2024 has addressed its weaknesses and set it on the right track.


Ferrari has long been pilloried for finding ways to shoot itself in the foot and throw away great results. But this has been gradually improving, in particular since Vasseur took over as team principal ahead of 2023.

That’s manifested in its good strategy calls, for example Leclerc’s one-stopper at Suzuka. That was a result of a combination of pre-planning the right strategic options and good communication from the driver, who pushed to extend the first stint despite being on the medium tyres.

What’s more, it’s been a while since we’ve seen Ferrari do something completely baffling, such as sending its drivers out on the wrong tyre in qualifying - as happened at Interlagos in 2022 when Leclerc was put on intermediates for Q3 when dries were the right choice.

The execution of the pitstops is also consistently good. Thanks to the DHL fastest pitstop award, the turnaround times are logged and Ferrari has four of the 10 quickest pitstops of 2024. While Red Bull still dominates, Ferrari is firmly second best.

It’s still lagging behind but this is further evidence of the long-term progress in this area. Back in 2020, Ferrari was ranked eighth for pitstops but things have steadily improved.

This operational improvement extends far beyond race strategy and pitstops. On Vasseur’s watch, the decision-making and clarity of leadership at Ferrari has taken a step forward. He’s been able to keep the politics that are always bubbling away at Ferrari at bay and give clear direction.

This has impacted all areas of the team and crucially allowed greater focus on the key areas for improvement.

That means development objectives have been set more precisely, the team has avoided overreacting to both success and failure and communication and collaboration has improved.

And at Ferrari, getting that side of things under control has always been the key to success.


Ferrari still has a long way to go to be a regular threat to Red Bull but there are signs that it can aspire to take on and beat Red Bull in a straight fight this year, as Melbourne hinted at.

Sainz believes that there are certain tracks where Ferrari can be in the mix.

"I think to fight for wins we will try when we go to the Monzas or Singapores or Miami we will be in the mix," Sainz said.

So far, the upgrades Ferrari has brought have been minor. Winglets were added to the rear wing pylon in Australia and a reprofiled aerodynamic fairing for the rear suspension top wishbone leg appeared in Japan. There have also been some circuit-specific parts to tune the car for the aero demands of tracks. But the first big upgrade is expected at Imola next month and should include a new floor.

"I think they [Red Bull] 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, but by that time maybe it's a bit too late with the advantage that they might have on the championship," Sainz admitted.

"In the meantime, we need more Australias!"

Unlike Mercedes, Ferrari hasn’t given up hope of emerging as a championship threat this year, at least not publicly. But realistically, this year is all about making faster progress than Red Bull so it has the possibility of being a genuine challenger for race wins next year and therefore can fight for the title when Lewis Hamilton arrives to join Leclerc.

Vasseur stresses the merits of pushing for constant improvement in all areas, and there is plenty of evidence that this is delivering results.

There’s still a long way to go before Ferrari can be considered a serious threat to Red Bull. But recent progress proves that the trajectory is right to do so.

And that’s exactly what is needed to make a team that has consistently underachieved in the past 15 years into one that really can re-emerge as a championship winner.

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