A scorching Hungaroring sent Formula One into its midsummer break gasping for air. Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes garage can now breathe easier as they look forward to the remainder of the season with renewed optimism after the British driver controlled the race to record a maiden victory for his new employer. Over at Ferrari however, the heat was raising tempers. Another disappointing result left Fernando Alonso voicing his concerns about where the team was headed, a relatively mild show of frustration but one which earned a stinging rebuke from President Luca de Montezemolo. The Italians are closing rank. This is one cooling off period which has arrived not a moment too soon.
Latin blood may have a lower boiling point but there was more than a hint of menace in the debrief at which the head man presented each of his engineers with a knife, together with the invitation to place it between their teeth as they bid to restore lost honour in the final nine events of the calendar. Alonso’s public birthday wish to have the same tools as everyone else, and his failure to dampen speculation linking him with the vacant Red Bull seat, might have been interpreted as the metaphorical equivalent in the back at Maranello. Twenty years ago Alain Prost was dismissed for calling his car a ‘truck’, an illustration that no-one is bigger than this august institution, if somewhat overlooking the fact that if the multiple World Champion was unable to get the best out of it, then who could? The prancing horse subsequently remained in the doldrums for much of that decade. Grand gestures are not always the best way to tackle discontent.
Like a number of sporting concerns who regard their place at the top as a right, they can be slow to spot what is going wrong and how to rectify it. Our way has been good enough in the past, they might say, so why alter a proven method? Relying on prestige to get you through though can be a dangerous path. Yes, recruiting the best is rarely a difficult proposition, the latest being former Lotus technical director James Allison, but it often tends to be reactive rather than innovative. In Hungary, Ferrari spent much of Friday dithering over the performance of a new diffuser, rather than trusting in their own simulation data. Where other teams are unafraid to stick on a modified front wing, as Mercedes did with impressive effect, or take experimental set-ups into race weekend, those in the scarlet livery seem wracked by caution. Perhaps they need someone willing to take the big decisions without the historical baggage weighing them down.
Suggestions that the wind tunnel problems that have dogged them for some time are still causing concern are a huge embarrassment for such a well-resourced operation. Research and development is being wasted, but so too is Alonso’s talent. Last season, with inferior pace on a regular basis, the Spaniard still managed to take the title to the wire, utilising his racecraft and experience in his thrilling battle with Sebastian Vettel. Worryingly, at the corresponding point he led the way. Now he has a significant deficit to claw back at circuits which clearly suit his rival. With finishing positions of second, third, fourth and now fifth, the momentum is in the wrong direction. Poor qualifying is putting pressure on strategy and meaning heavy reliance on Alonso’s fabled ability to improve on his grid location, something he was unable to uphold on Sunday. No wonder that cracks are beginning to appear in his loyalty.
The lack of competitiveness, and diminishing confidence in key areas such as handling, or the suspension failure which was to blame for at least one of his identikit accidents in a torrid Monaco experience, are contributing to Felipe Massa’s current travails. While remaining rather more ‘on message’, unsurprisingly given that his future continues to look uncertain, his own annoyance was not far from the surface as he reflected on an eighth place which rarely threatened to be any better. His contributions have slid even more alarmingly than his team-mate’s. But might the campaign’s still unresolved connecting thread have disturbed Ferrari disproportionately? The issue of tyres will not go away, and the hasty changes introduced by Pirelli in the last two races, a response to the Silverstone debacle, have definitely not suited a configuration which had previously appeared to cope more comfortably than most. This artificial manipulation of the hierarchy is an irritation which is not lightening the mood of de Montezemolo or his chief henchman Stefano Domenicali.
The Ferrari staff are hardly likely to be sunning themselves on a beach between now and the resumption in Belgium at the end of next month. Test driver Pedro de la Rosa has already been despatched to Magny Cours for a three day session at which they hope to address some of the problems. Has the relationship with their most prized asset been damaged by the intervention from the top? Michael Schumacher was never given to ‘rash outbursts’, but then he rarely had the cause. Alonso’s motives cannot be disconnected from the febrile atmosphere of the Formula One pit lane. “This is the moment to stay calm, avoid polemics and show humility”, says the extraordinary statement posted on the team’s official website. As Vettel and Raikkonen draw further away, and Hamilton threatens to join the fight at last, that may be asking a lot.