Red Bull eclipsing Ferrari as Mercedes’ greatest threat

2016 F1 season

Posted on

| Written by

On lap ten in Melbourne it seemed the 2016 season has begun very well for Ferrari.

Ferrari began the season strongly
Sebastian Vettel led the field and the team’s other car was two-and-a-half seconds behind. Kimi Raikkonen had the leading Mercedes of Nico Rosberg covered, and the second silver car belonging to Lewis Hamilton was boxed in behind Max Verstappen’s Toro Rosso.

Had it not been for a slip-up in the pits, Ferrari could have converted that strong start into a victory in the opening round of the championship. But six races later that flying start has been largely forgotten. There has been little sign of Ferrari’s Mercedes-rivalling pace we glimpsed in Melbourne since then.

Vettel’s move to Ferrari last year seemed perfectly timed. He enjoyed a honeymoon season, taking three victories in what otherwise would have been a Mercedes rout. We quickly became accustomed to his exuberant shouts of ‘grazie ragazzi’ on the team radio.

But recently the Ferrari radio has been characterised by explosive bursts of frustration from Vettel as instead of taking the fight to the silver cars he has increasingly found himself fighting his former team.

In Russia a gearbox change penalty left him in the firing line of Daniil Kvyat’s RB12 at the start. In Spain a clear victory opportunity went begging and Vettel was left fending off Daniel Ricciardo for the final spot on the podium.

The cause of Ferrari’s slide is no mystery. The team has been unable to extract the maximum grip from Pirelli’s fickle tyres during qualifying. It was as much a problem for them on soft tyres at the abrasive Circuit de Catalunya as it was on the new ultra-soft compound at the low-grip Monte-Carlo track. And most troubling for the team, a rare opportunity to work on the problem during a two-day test in Spain appears not to have solved it.

That has allowed Red Bull to capitalise. In three of the last four races they have been closer to Mercedes’ pace than Ferrari – and at the last round in Monaco they even out-qualified the team which has been F1’s pace setters since 2014.

This was arguably a very significant moment. It was only the third time Mercedes have been out-qualified since V6 hybrid turbo era began, and on the two previous occasions mitigating factors were involved. Williams beat them in Austria in 2014 after the Mercedes drivers made mistakes on their laps. And Ferrari took pole position in Singapore last year on a weekend when Mercedes were bafflingly off-form.

Red Bull, however, demonstrated genuine Mercedes-beating pace – albeit on a highly unusual circuit:

The result is instead of Ferrari taking the fight to Mercedes, they’re looking over their shoulders at the Red Bulls which are closing on them rapidly. In the constructors’ championship Ferrari only nine points ahead of Red Bull. Had Kvyat not wrecked the points-scoring chances of both Red Bulls in Russia the team might already be ahead.

What happens in the coming races will be crucial in deciding how this battle is resolved. Red Bull delivered at the Circuit de Catalunya and Monte-Carlo, tracks where the RB12’s superior cornering was always going to give them an advantage. The Circuit Gilles Villeneuve and Red Bull Ring place a far greater premium on horsepower.

The arrival of Renault’s potent new engine upgrade is therefore very well-timed for Red Bull. If Ferrari can’t get on top of their qualifying problems soon they may find their time as ‘best of the rest’ has been brief.

2016 F1 season

Browse all 2016 F1 season articles

Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

Got a potential story, tip or enquiry? Find out more about RaceFans and contact us here.

45 comments on “Red Bull eclipsing Ferrari as Mercedes’ greatest threat”

  1. Am already anticipating another knee jerk house cleaning from team Red.

    1. Well, media has been reporting about the house cleaning for some time now. It’s stupid, it’s wrong, but it’s not knee jerking.

    2. Everyone loves to mock Ferrari. Ferrari had one staff restructure in 10 years, I think Ferrari fans would rather see more of that than nothing.

      Ferrari has been trying to stay cohesive but also realistic and that’s tough as being realistic causes tensions. Look at where was McLaren last season and where they are now, McLaren has gone optimistic…. Now we here much less bickering from their camp. Red Bull might have nailed Max down but there’s still James Key to poach, this might be the big change everyone’s talking about rather than Allison getting Arrivabene’s job. Honestly, Ferrari’s engine has been their greatest woe, after Melbourne, Seb and other team members hinted at winter problems, presumably because of the reliability issues this package has given them even though it was a package that was meant to be introduced at the end of last season. In Shanghai Ferrari introduced a reliability upgrade and the engine started sounding as the Honda off the throttle, which surely doesn’t help with traction and drive-ability as Mercedes have never used such trick, this suggests to me that Ferrari have compromised performance and drive-ability for reliability. Finally Ferrari hasn’t performed well as a racing team, and that could be linked to Allison’s absence, facts of life.

  2. I don’t have anything against them but their constant failures are hillarious! cracks are showing, Vettel’s frustration is evident.

    For all it’s been said about Alonso’s years, I don’t think drivers are the issue… there’s so much pressure in that team, constant changes in the managment, psuhing so hard to please the tifosi and never doing enough!

    1. +1

      With the possible exception of the Schumacher years (in which the were winning often), Ferrari has always seemed to be a pressure-cooked team to work within, and for all that can be said about Horner and Helmut, they at least run a tighter ship, managerial wise.

      1. Yep @eduardogigante. Well the Dream Team years were about Todt keeping Monte’s nose out of things while Brawn provided the leadership of the technical team in his calm, positive way. Once Monte got rid of Todt and Brawn left it was business as usual, and now Marchionne is keeping up the tradition.

        Horner, tho we love to hate him, is a terrific TP for the people in his team, and so is Toto I think. They don’t push, they lead. No surprise Aldo isn’t interested in going back, or Andy Powell in going.

      2. The Schumacher years are a bit of an anomaly in Ferrari history, but they do show what can be done when a well funded and well run team keeps their top brass stable for a period, it is pretty much exactly like Mercedes have done. I don’t think it is a coincidence that Mr RJ Brawn OBE was involved in both teams…

        1. No cooincidence at all.

    2. The constant failure of being second in the WCC? Is that according to the Alonso School of Thought that only first matters and the rest is equal? Ferrari must do better, but they’re nowhere near as bad as other former champions Williams, Renault, and McLaren.

      1. @cashnotclass Well… yes.

        While many would kill for seasons like this, for a team that invests so much in their drivers and personnel and has a long and proud history in the sport (and whose parent company is evermore beholden to stockholders, who want to see a reason for so much spending), to finish in second place is to finish first among the losers. This may irk some, but that’s just Formula One (and sports, in general).

        1. You say sports in general, but compared to a lot of other team sports the ability to be happy with anything but the win sometimes seems awfully absent from Formula One. Expectations at Ferrari are always going to be high, which is normal for the most successful and prestigious team in the sport. The standard they hold themselves to is probably why they aren’t shy about making changes to their staff while other (former) champions languish in the midfield for years and years. To be sure, there can be only one winner, and Ferrari should and does aspire to be in that position. But if they can’t – and this year they can’t – I hope Ferrari can appreciate coming second as the next best thing, rather than getting bogged down in the needlessly simplistic vision Alonso advocates.

          1. I just hope that Ferrari, out of desperation, doesn’t resort to their extreme one-rooster format again, but I suspect it could well with SV there and Kimi perhaps soon gone.

            I don’t sympathize with them due to their extra hundreds of millions they receive just for being who they are, and their veto power, on top of their willingness to sometimes sacrifice one driver by contract, taking the inter-team rivalry out of the equation.

            The good news is that in spite of the extra weight they carry, those extras they have are obviously no guarantee of success.

          2. Well, they are not even second on raw pace. Given their inequal financial treatment, there’s nothing to be proud of. So yes, to me Alonso is right. @cash-notclass

  3. Re: Had Kvyat not wrecked the points-scoring chances of both Red Bulls in Russia the team might already be ahead.

    Well, he also robbed Vettel of two scoring opportunities, if not for them, Ferrari would have been more ahead and Vettel beating Raikkonen. Anyway, even without these speculations about the “Kvyat factor” you’ve shown reasons enough that Ferrari should worry.

    1. “Well, he also robbed Vettel of two scoring opportunities”

      Two? Huh? There’s the double collision in Russia, and what else?

      1. Sviatoslav (@)
        4th June 2016, 13:38

        nase – I think Vettel could’ve gain points twice in Russia for his greatness.

  4. Nonsense article….. Ferrari finished ahead of red bull in every race except the last 2 and with a faster car got stuck behind in Barcelona just like it happens every year … see Alonso and maldonado…..
    Mistakes in qualifying by ferrari and Kvyat destroying 2 races has flattered red bulls pace. Monaco is Monaco and red bull capitalised on their strengths.
    Red bull claims a 5 tenths improvement due to a pu upgrade… Ferrari was 9 tenths faster in qualifying the last “normal” races we had running a suspect turbocharger.. lets see what happens when that turbo gets upgraded for canada… my opinion is that red bull will be right where they belong in 3rd or 4th with williams being a threat in canada.

    1. I think calling the article nonsense is too harsh but definitely you’re assessment is more concise than the article. I agree with your view of Ferrari’s weakness, I do hope they’ll mend that turbocharger. I think RB is going to be fighting with Ferrari but I still think Ferrari has more pace.

      1. Finally some sense. Thanks Mike

  5. It’s very easy to mock Ferrari but nobody can deny they are the only team that have produced a proper car every year since 2010. They have won races in every season bar 2014, but have been on the podium every season. They have been in the championship hunt till the last race in more than one season and have been in the hunt for longer than most teams in the other ones. Sure you can credit Alonso but he alone is not worth the 0.5s he sometimes claims he is. Their problem is everyone expects them to be winning, whether you are Ferrari fan or not we all act like it’s still 2000-2004 and they should be up there. Let me ask you this, where has McLaren been since 2012? Arguably they have better staff and the reputation of “developing the car quickly” (as if…).

    1. Thank you! I hate how the media mocks Ferrari over and over, as if the pressure they are under from their management isn’t enough already. True, with everything Ferrari has, it theoretically should be the team to rule them all… but not everything is black and white. I still think that if they continue in the current direction things can only get better, and who knows, perhaps even win a championship or two.

      1. @simeonoff Im sorry but Ferrari are not winning any WCC for the foreseeable future. Unless there’s an exodus of key personnel at Mercedes or Red Bull, those two teams have dibs on both titles for the foreseeable future. Ferrari should be wary of a rejuvenated McLaren. I’d argue that Honda has as much, if not more resources than Ferrari and given they are now getting a handle on their PU, I wouldn’t be surprised if McLaren started making regular podium appearances in the not too distant future.

    2. You’re right to highlight the expectations. Ferrari has such an great reputation that people expect them to do well all the time, even when they’re second! Who else has such an imposing status? McLaren has been nowhere for years and years and who even cares? There have been many races where it’s like they’re not even there.

    3. While I agree that they have been one of the more consistent teams since 2010, you cannot deny that they have underperformed given the resources at hand and their overall inefficiency.

      They had a relatively strong car in 2010 because they dropped the ball massively in 2009 and moved resources toward 2010 earlier than most teams. In 2011, instead of improving on their 2nd best position from the previous season, they moved a notch down to 3rd behind mclaren. Again they decided to wrap up development early in 2011 and focus on 2012. In 2012, they built an absolute dog of a car, that wasn’t even a race winner if it wasn’t for Alonsos heroics on multiple occasions.. At best they built the 3rd best car on the grid. In 2013, and they consolidated their position of 3rd best car on the grid, but this time behind the red bull and Mercedes.

      In 2014, they were one of the 2 manufacturers that had a realistic shot at the wcc, and obviously they finished 4th in the wcc this time. In 2015,they delivered their best performance since 2010 by finishing in 2nd, and it’s looking like it’s 3rd in the wcc again in 2016

      Honestly, it’s quite a bit of underperformance considering their resources, manufacturer advantage, rule vetos, superstar drivers, etc. It’s laughable to a certain extent because they feel a certain sense of entitlement due to their history, but they just don’t have overall efficiency or ingenuity that their rivals possess.

      1. @todfod well said! fully agree.

    4. @xtwl
      You can go a lot earlier than that. Ferrari have basically always designed a reasonably good car (podium capable, top 4 in the WCC) since the 90’s.

  6. James Allison’s job might be on the line again at Ferrari if they don’t produce this year.

    1. Allison has only just returned to work since the death of his wife, so I don’t see anyone blaming him for any Ferrari failings thus far.

  7. Begging your pardon, but the most significant factor in the Mercedes v. Ferrari v. Red Bull battle is the number of engine components already used by Lewis Hamilton. It is no longer IF but WHEN he will start getting grid demotions. This far Rosberg has been lucky but should Mercedes lack of reliability hit him too, there might even be a three-way battle for the constructors. Realistically though, it will be a battle for second between Ferrari and RBR and here, the venues at which the second Mercedes incurs 10-place grid penalties might be decisive (i.e. Hungary would favour Red Bull whereas Spa and Monza would favour Ferrari).

    1. Sviatoslav (@)
      4th June 2016, 13:42

      Mercedes can change the engine twice on the same GP, let Lewis start once from the back of the grid…and use these 2 engines in the rest of the races to the fullest extent.

      1. Is that right? I know McLaren had multiple engine changes over race weekends last season but I don’t think they ended up reusing those engines…

        1. Posted the above without thinking. You don’t start collecting grid penalties until you’re on your sixth engine, which in effect means Lewis would have to have every engine available to him literally installed and uninstalled in one race weekend before Mercedes would be able to pull that stunt with “new” engines. If it were as simple as you indicated above then Max Verstappen would have had an extra engine installed for Monaco since he was already starting from the pit lane.

  8. must be a TOTAL eclipse or sth ;)

  9. two things which I believe to be the case

    RBR never stopped having the best car
    Monaco is the least fuel hungry track on the circuit, wet conditions amplified their car’s potential vs the rest.

    In the dry, on the fuel, Mercedes Fuel economy will destroy the rest of the field. ONLY, and I REPEAT, ONLY, because people believe that forcing everyone to run 100kg/hr is progress. If you believe progress is telling people to lose, then yes, maybe this is progress.

    Next year, when the tires become wider, and become more wanting of fuel, when the drag coefficient grows, and more fuel is demanded, Mercedes will remain in a very VERY healthy lead vs the rest of the field. Factory teams will have an advantage over their satellite teams (much like MotoGP) and teams like Sauber who depend on actually getting good results will fade away while customer teams and consumerism hit new highs in F1.

    1. If you want better action on track, lose the fuel limit for race distance, ban unlimited boost (why promote massive spending by the engine manufacturers?), and please, please, let teams choose their power trains like the teams in WEC do. There is a real advantage to diversity. But unfortunately ‘equality’ and political correctness, it’s child mediocrity (not meritocracy) is all that’s on offer these days. Why beg for rules? Why not better competition? Nature finds a way to balance the equation, the real authority, not a bunch of people trading political favours.

      1. @xsavior

        “and please, please, let teams choose their power trains like the teams in WEC do.”
        That has never happend and never will and F1 is not WEC.
        If you allow that you’ll run all the manufactures out the sport.

    2. … that forcing everyone to run 100kg of fuel per race is progress… (not 100kg/hr)

    3. @xsavior

      RBR never stopped having the best car

      There have been some people who were convinced, even in 2015 (when RBR was nowhere and Merc were dominating), that Red Bull was always the best car and it was the Renault engines holding them back.

  10. What’s worrying for Ferrari isn’t where they are now, but where they will be in the near future. At the moment, I think they’re still ahead of the Red Bulls on the overall track.

    At Spain, Raikkonen was closing the gap to Verstappen lap after lap even when he is so close behind and suffer from a reduced downforce. We have seen that it can be super hard to follow in Barcelona, even with the best car (if my memory serves me well Rosberg complained about Lewis backing him to Vettel’s Ferrari last year at Spain). The fact that Raikkonen was able to follow so closely highlighted the superiority of the red cars. When all cars were in free-air, the Ferraris easily outpaced the Red Bulls. If it wasn’t for Red Bull’s great traction out of the last corner, Ferrari would have won that Grand Prix by a distance.

    Monaco was always going to be Red Bull’s heaven, and it’s not because of the engine upgrade. At the first part of the race Verstappen was overtaking people like a maniac. Overtaking in Monaco is a big deal, especially in such a damp condition. At the same race where Seb on the Inters was stuck behind Massa (say what you want about Ferrari, they are quite visibly superior to the Williams in Monaco) and Ricciardo stuck behind Lewis despite being faster all weekend, it just shows how amazing that Red Bull chassis is.

    On a regular race track or one that depends heavily on the engine, I believe the Ferraris will continue to be ahead of the Red Bulls. We haven’t seen the true performance of those upgraded Renault engines yet, because again Monaco isn’t really suitable for comparison, but I have a feeling they’re still behind the Merc and Ferrari engines on pace.

    But, what’s worrying for Ferrari is their underperformance in Q3. Sometimes they lose time in Q3 compared to Q2, which is really troubling because in Q2 top cars don’t really push to the limit to conserve the tyres for the race. If they continue to flunk in Qualy, they will have to rely on track overtaking and superior strategies, which isn’t available at all tracks (like Monaco).

    Furthermore, Ferrari has 6 engine development tokens yet to use this season, Renault has 21. That is a huge deal. Admittedly, sometimes 6 tokens used efficiently are better then 21 tokens of wasted development, but Ferrari has to watch their backs now. Let’s just hope that the performance is there for Ferrari in Q3, and somehow another engine upgrade or such can extract it out, because they are in serious pressure.

    The upside: James Allison is coming back to work.

  11. I think one of their problems is Kimi. He’s just not that hungry any more and isn’t reallly pushing the team or vettel to the level of excellence that (for example) Webber did ar RBR or Rosberg does at Mercedes.

    It’s sad that for all the $$ they have spent on drivers, I suspect that they would get the same or better results with younger, hungrier drivers. Put VES in the team against Vettel and watch how many tents Vettel improves by.

    1. I dunno, race performances aside, Kimi has been faster vs Seb then last year. I think he was even leading Seb in the championship for a while too. Kimi is disappointing, but I would call him a disappointment. Ferrari have the same problem they had when RBR were dominating, 3rd best car. What is changed is the emphasis moving towards strict fuel regulations plus the new power unit formula which has promoted Ferrari over RBR. Dump the fuel restrictions and even unlimited boost and RBR will probably start dominating Mercedes, and Ferrari might get a little closer to Mercedes.

      1. then -> vs.

      2. *wouldn’t

  12. This is just like Real Madrid vs Barcelona… Ronaldo vs Messi. While Ronaldo is pretty good, he is no Messi…

    Now lets talk about F1. Like you guys say, Ferrari are very prone to trying to overexpect and underdeliver. Having worked in Italy for a yeat, that is Italian work culture in a nutshell.

    They are good at thinking big, but then fail on little details. F1 is those details, sure engine might be as strong as Mercedes, but probably not as reliable or drivable.

    And these tires are terrible for them. They have a decent chassis, but poor tire manegement. Could be as simple as Mercedes and RBR using trick pressure reducing rims. There is much talk of that these days.

    And then there are facts of life, like RBR under stable regulations produce better and bettet aero package. Their ultimate performance is just wonderful. Car with compliant suspension, impressive downforce at various yaw angles… It is class leading for sure. It took them 3 years but now they are in the saddle again.

    Then there is Mercedes, a team with stacks of power and downforce. Excellent tire management. You can tell how good Mercedes is on tires by how far slower they are when they get it wrong.

    Ferrari is just good, but not best at anything important, they dont have the best driver combo money can buy, best engine or best aero. They are not even best at tires.

    Being the best in the world is quite tricky, many teams could get within 1s of Mercedes with Ferrari budget. But that final second requires seemingly more than they have.

Comments are closed.