Ferrari’s confusingly bad strategy at the Hungarian Grand Prix shows it’s time for change at the Scuderia, but it’s not Mattia Binotto who should go…
In a moment that succinctly summed up Ferrari’s day at the Hungaroring, the TV footage from the post-race cooldown room showed Lewis Hamilton asking “they were on the hards?” to fellow podium celebrants Max Verstappen and George Russell, enquiring about Charles Leclerc.
Both drivers laughed and confirmed Leclerc had, indeed, been scrabbling around on the white-marked Pirellis as Verstappen passed him on track, spun, and then promptly overtook him again.
It wasn’t as though Ferrari didn’t have ample warning not to use the Hard compound. Haas’ Kevin Magnussen fitted it on Lap 6 following his black and orange flag, as did the two Alpines when they came in on Laps 21 and 23.
With the Alpines, in particular, having shown competitive pace on the softer compounds, it was particularly telling when their pace simply fell away on the hards, unable to generate sufficient tyre temperature in the cooler race conditions as a constant light drizzle fell on the track.
On Lap 26, with the two Ferraris still ahead of Verstappen as Leclerc tackled George Russell for the lead of the race, Mattia Binotto told Sky F1 that he “wasn’t worried” about the pace shown by Verstappen as “his pace is [only] as good as ours”.
Having remained unfazed through the first round of pit-stops, as Leclerc came in on Lap 21 for a fresh set of Mediums some three to five laps after his immediate rivals, Ferrari certainly appeared far more worried about Verstappen than Binotto claimed as they hauled Leclerc in on Lap 39.
Having run 21 laps on the Mediums at the start, Leclerc’s second stint was just 17 laps when he came in to cover off Verstappen’s attempted undercut – a move that might have worked out had Ferrari been able to put him on anything other than the Hard compound.
Having had a lead of seven seconds over Verstappen when he pitted, Leclerc was passed by the Dutch driver just two laps later – the Monegasque having to then endure the embarrassment of being overtaken again when Verstappen made an uncharacteristic error.
Why did Ferrari choose the Hards?
Having started on the Medium compound, and then running the yellow-marked tyres for the second stint, Ferrari had backed themselves into a corner. Given the requirement to run two different compounds during a race, their call to run the Mediums for the second stint meant either running the Hards or a short stint on the Softs for the run to the flag (as Carlos Sainz did).
Red Bull’s aggressive undercut meant that, if Ferrari pitted immediately to cover it and hold onto track position, they would have to run the more durable Hards in order to ensure making the chequered flag.
Holding firm out front, which Leclerc indicated he would have preferred to do, would have conceded track position, but would have allowed Leclerc to come back strongly against Verstappen with fresh Soft tyres against aging Mediums.
“We knew the Hard tyres had gone some warm-up difficulties, a couple of laps where they would not have been as fast as the Mediums for 10 or 11 laps,” reasoned Binotto afterward.
“But then, towards the end over a stint of 30 laps, we believed that they would have been fast enough somehow to be in the race and try to certainly have a good position the end of the race but, overall, they didn’t work as we were expecting.
“I think the main reason is because the car was not working as we were expecting, but let’s see, let’s analyse, let’s have a conclusion.”
Certainly, Pirelli’s own strategy cards for the race didn’t even include Ferrari’s M-M-H call, with the closest in terms of race time being an “alternate” strategy of running M-H-S – even then, not an expected call for a team supposedly fighting for victory.
The conclusion, it has to be said, is that Ferrari simply dropped the ball on strategy – and not for the first time. Armed with the (arguably) fastest car on the grid, the Scuderia are a team that lack any form of operational sharpness, in stark contrast to the might of Red Bull‘s tactical team.
Red Bull’s Hannah Schmitz won the race for Verstappen
Not only did Red Bull set a new season record with a pit stop for Sergio Perez in Hungary, the team threw caution to the wind with a flexible and evolving strategy. Having initially planned to start on the Hards, both Verstappen and Perez switched to the Softs after being unhappy with the grip yield during the reconnaissance laps to the grid.
Once underway, Verstappen was rarely cooped up behind other drivers for long as he either overtook them or was brought in to attempt an undercut – his second stop being a particularly powerful chess move. Red Bull’s Principal Strategy Engineer Hannah Schmitz is rightly being singled out for praise, as her quick thinking meant that she and Verstappen kept Red Bull in their comfort zone and kept Ferrari out of theirs.
There’s a general sense of lethargy about Ferrari’s decision-making, a malaise of blindly following what the computer and simulations say, rather than attempting to be the disruptive force as Red Bull are so willing to try. Just look at the timing of that radio message to Sainz in France, with his engineer seemingly unaware that the Spaniard was locked in battle on track at the same time as his message.
Ferrari’s revolving door of team bosses and star drivers over the past 15 years has resulted in a team that appears much more cohesive on the technical front – perhaps no surprise, given Binotto’s background working with engines and a recent technical director.
Stefano Domenicali, Marco Mattiaci, Maurizio Arrivabene, Fernando Alonso, and Sebastian Vettel are all names that have come and gone through the doors of Maranello in recent years, with Binotto’s reign attempting to instill a different culture: one of calm analysis and less emotionally-driven politics than was seen under previous administrations.
But, while there has been shake-ups in management and on the technical front, it’s surprising that Ferrari have yet to make any change on the strategic side.
It’s a glaring weakness within the Scuderia, one so pervasive that the ineptitude of Ferrari’s strategy calls have become a subject of worldwide ridicule in the form of internet memes – with one particularly infamous one stretching back several years.
Inaki Rueda has been Strategy Director of Ferrari since 2014, overseeing the years of Sebastian Vettel‘s championship attempts and, maybe coincidentally, the years during which Ferrari began to pick up a reputation for being substandard when it comes to pit calls.
But Rueda has the backing of Binotto, despite the seemingly never-ending pattern of poor decision-making.
“I’m looking at the overall balance of the season – we made the right strategy in France,” he said.
“We made it right in Austria, I think many times we made it the right time. Sometimes we made mistakes, the others are doing mistakes. Not only Inaki, the entire team is great. I’m fully supporting them because I trust them.”
There’s no doubt that Rueda is perfectly capable of making the right calls on occasion. But it’s worth pointing out that, throughout his eight-year stint in the role, Ferrari have never had the undisputed fastest car and had the benefit of a canny Sebastian Vettel disputing calls from the pits.
It’s hard to imagine Lewis Hamilton “setting a task” for Pete Bonnington and James Vowles to figure out his strategy as Vettel had to enquire of his team during the 2020 Spanish GP.
With Charles Leclerc a meek mouse by comparison, whether that be due to personality, a sense of filial obligation to Ferrari due to their backing of him through the junior categories, or his long-term contract, his unyielding obedience while driving the F1-75 has exposed Ferrari’s biggest flaw – a flaw that Ferrari appear to have a genuine problem admitting to.
With Binotto and, interestingly, Sainz, reluctant to point the finger of blame at the strategy department, instead choosing to blame their Hungarian defeat on a “lack of pace”, the rot looks to be here to stay.
It’s very difficult to imagine Mercedes or Red Bull allowing such an obvious weakness to remain comfortable in their roles, especially if Vowles or Schmitz dropped the ball as frequently and obviously as Rueda has.
Binotto’s desire to create a more harmonious Ferrari, one where staff can feel comfortable to work freely and to the best of their talents without fear for their jobs, appears to have worked in almost every way.
Surely, at this point after eight years, Rueda has all the tools at his disposal to perform his job to the best of his ability. With Leclerc scoring just one podium in the past eight races, those tools don’t appear to be working.
There’s a point at which Binotto has to make a hard call, similar to how he was able to turn his back so easily on Vettel after promising contract talks during 2019.
If he won’t do it, it may cost him his own job, and it doesn’t fix the underlying problems.
It’s hard to imagine a team squandering a car as potent as the F1-75 quite as well as Ferrari have, but it’s the one area in which the Scuderia have been exceptional this season.