Ferrari backed his way into the right direction

The season-long race for second place in the Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship came down to … go on … really? … an effective Ferrari date? Okay then.

Entering Sunday’s season finale at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc and Red Bull’s Sergio “Checo” Pérez were dead even in the points, each on 290 and losing a tie for second place. (Leclerc had the tiebreaker, by virtue of having won more races this season.) With Max Verstappen’s dominance ending the title race months ago, it was the best drama left in the F1 season, at least outside of “this is Sebastian Vettel’s last race. and all cry” department. It was essentially a shootout: whoever beat the other on Sunday would take the first losers’ spot behind Verstappen.

After qualifying second on Saturday and starting Sunday’s race on the pace, Pérez looked set to lose second place. Leclerc also had speed, but not as much, so Ferrari had to do something bold to make up the difference. The choice was almost forced upon them: Do they try to match Red Bull and stop twice in the pits, or do they push Leclerc for a long time in one stop and hope that the 22 second stop difference was in their favor?

Because this is still Ferrari, it wasn’t particularly clear what direction they were going in the first half of the race. Leclerc was out until lap 24, but Pérez changed the first set of tires on lap 16. It immediately appeared that Leclerc had the wrong direction, as Pérez had built up a five-second advantage after both drivers pitted. Ferrari have had problems with tire degradation all season, which seemed to point to a two-stop race; the second hole in the first session might have doomed them.

That was it, then. Instead, Ferrari was forced to keep Leclerc on a one-stop strategy, despite other drivers in the race struggling with the one-stop strategy. Vettel employed that tactic and could be heard complaining about it on Aston Martin radio, and Lewis Hamilton was similarly incredulous at the one-stop strategy before his car’s gearbox failed, forcing a late DNF (Mercedes’ first mechanical retirement of the season; the W13 can’t go enough away quickly). The only driver who looked relaxed and in control with the one-stop strategy was Verstappen, who had no competition up front and was able to take care of his tires en route to an easy and record-breaking 15th win of the season.

Even Leclerc seemed confused by the one-stop strategy, questioning whether he could break through and still make it through the second half of the race. He eventually gave up on that dream and committed to the one-stop strategy, but when Pérez switched from his hard tires to mediums during the second pit stop, the race was on.

At the time of his second pit stop, the Mexican driver was 18 seconds behind the Monegasque driver with 22 laps to go. Maths tells us that Pérez needed to make up around 0.9 seconds per lap and he seemed to be able to do that on fresher tyres.

The great thing about racing in Formula 1, however, is that it happens. Even considering what was the better strategy, based on both practice times and what actually happened in the race, Pérez still had to not only make up a lot of time on Leclerc, but also sail slower cars one lap behind. This played a key role in Leclerc’s defense and ultimately the success of Ferrari’s one-stop strategy: as Leclerc had to pass drivers during the defense, he was able to repeatedly enter the drag reduction system, which allowed him to maintain good speed even on older tyres.

Pérez also had these same cars pass, but they felt more like obstacles than advantages. Perhaps the most significant obstacle in the race for second came near the end, as AlphaTauri’s Pierre Gasly and Williams’ Alex Albon battled directly in front of Pérez on lap 56. Gasly didn’t get a blue flag early enough to get out of the race. shouted Pérez, slowing the Red Bull driver enough to break the momentum of his charge. That slight slowdown was about all Leclerc needed: Pérez never got within a second of Leclerc the rest of the way, and Ferrari took second place in both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships.

To be clear, it was leaving Leclerc on a one-stop strategy probably wrong call. With a better plan to keep him close to Pérez early on, he could have raced for the media towards the end and had a decent race, rather than a horrendous defense against a charging Red Bull. However, F1 is so often about success that Ferrari ended up making the right move. Why? Because it worked. Sometimes it’s that simple, and no amount of Ferrari craziness this season can rob them of the fact that by keeping Leclerc out on the track longer than Pérez, they got the place they so desperately needed.

Fortunately for Ferrari, though, they know strategy needs an overhaul for next season if they are to challenge Red Bull as they looked to do at the start of this season. Team manager Mattia Binotto is a fascinating character, but he seemed to be in over his head as a manager. He is reportedly out next year, but Alfa Romeo principal Frederic Vasseur is coming in to replace him. It remains to be seen whether Vasseur will overhaul the strategy team if the reports prove true, but it will have to be one of Ferrari’s priorities regardless of who is at the top.

This season, Ferrari always felt like they had the worst strategy of the top three, and even when they didn’t, it felt a lot like Sunday: a wrong choice that somehow worked out for them. The season has brought more joy than it looked like Ferrari would experience in the dying days of this campaign, but now it’s time to build something less frustrating for 2023.

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