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Formula 1

Why Ferrari is both underestimated and underperforming

by Valentin Khorounzhiy
5 min read

The odd relationship Ferrari’s had between qualifying and races in Formula 1 this season was best exemplified by two verdicts from its chief rival Lando Norris last week.

Norris, who has played a key role in McLaren frustrating Ferrari in races in 2021 despite an objectively slower car in qualifying, said ahead of last weekend’s French Grand Prix that Ferrari was making more mistakes. Two days later he said Ferrari was underestimated by a lot of people.

His first comment explains his second. For different reasons, Ferrari’s Saturday form has not always translated into results of the same calibre on Sunday. Gradually, Ferrari underperforming will lead to scepticism – it’s certainly not the dependable operator McLaren has been.

Back-to-back pole positions in Monaco and Azerbaijan have been the obvious highlights but Ferrari has been the highest-placed non-Mercedes/Red Bull team at every other race too.

Then that form continued into the French Grand Prix, another high-speed circuit that further dispelled the notion it would fall back behind McLaren at conventional tracks.

McLaren Ferrari F1

“The past few weekends they’ve been extremely fast because they have a very good car,” says Norris.

“I feel like a lot of people underestimate them for some reason, and still think they have a terrible car, and don’t expect things.

“But Ferrari have made a lot of improvements from last season, they have one of the best cars in certain types of corners and they’re extremely fast.

“There’s nowhere where they’re particularly bad. They are decent in the straights, and very fast in the corners. And I think people should just expect more from them.”

Why might Ferrari be underestimated?

In the first three races, Ferrari turned a qualifying advantage into a race finish behind McLaren.

That, coupled with McLaren not doing quite as well in qualifying at Bahrain and Imola as it should’ve done, created a perception that McLaren was potentially underperforming in qualifying while at the same time the Ferrari had great qualifying pace but nothing special to show on Sundays.

Ferrari F1

The scepticism about Ferrari’s true performance level continued even at its peak in Monaco and Azerbaijan, where the perception was simply that the Ferrari was very good on slower, street circuits.

Yes, that brought the best out of the package. But between the first three races where Ferrari underperformed and the street circuit peak came the Spanish Grand Prix – which should have been the point that more people realised Ferrari’s real level.

Barcelona was still slightly obfuscated though, as Daniel Ricciardo still wasn’t on top of the car but was made McLaren’s lead challenger as Norris qualified out of position. So, while the Ferrari race pace was strong, the McLaren circumstances of Spain probably gave some reason to doubt that was a true reflection of the pecking order.

Since then, the balance has swung undeniably towards Ferrari. And the fact is that Baku and Paul Ricard should have helped the McLaren’s characteristics vs Ferrari, but McLaren ended up behind in qualifying at both tracks.

That is telling.

Ferrari French GP F1 Charles Leclerc

So, Norris is correct – if people think the Ferrari’s not the third-fastest car over one lap they should be expecting more. If people think the Ferrari needs a track with slow corners to excel, they might want to reappraise the SF21.

However, any underestimation is also born from elements of underperformance from Ferrari as well.

McLaren vs Ferrari in 2021
  Ferrari McLaren
Best qualifying 1st (x2) 5th
Average best qualifying 3.4 6.4
Head-to-head qualifying 7 0
Best result 2nd 3rd
Average best result 5.3 4.4
Head-to-head race 3 4
Supertime average 100.597 100.797
Points 94 110

The lead Ferrari is yet to be outqualified by the lead McLaren. Yet the lead McLaren has beaten the lead Ferrari four times in seven races.

The average qualifying position for the lead Ferrari is, astonishingly 3.4 – three places better than the 6.4 average for the lead McLaren. Yet on average, the lead Ferrari loses two places on Sunday while the lead McLaren gains two.

And for all the peaks enjoyed by Ferrari – a better ‘qualifying best’ (pole), a better ‘highest race finish’ (second), a better supertime (100.597%) – it’s McLaren that’s third in the constructors’ championship.

That is also telling.

Carlos Sainz Charles Leclerc Ferrari F1

It is quite tempting to dismiss some of those discrepancies above by arguing Ferrari’s got a brilliantly fast qualifying car and doing a fantastic job to maximise its potential on Saturdays before those heroics fade on Sunday. And there’s certainly an element of truth to that.

But Ferrari’s fall on Sundays is greater than that – it doesn’t just slip from beating a Red Bull or Mercedes to merely best of the rest.

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The French GP was obviously an extreme example of Ferrari underperforming on race day, falling from another fine qualifying performance to its nadir of 2021 – a first point-less finish of the season.

But maybe that’s the “some reason” Norris refers to. Or at least part of it. Ongoing underachievement on Sundays will inevitably lead people to doubt the overall capability of the Ferrari, whether it’s turning a pole into fifth or a fifth into 11th.

That relationship between underperformance and underestimation will probably continue unless Ferrari evens out its peaks and troughs.

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