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Will Red Bull or Mercedes emerge as Ferrari's main challenger?

With Mercedes struggling for pace and Red Bull's reliability letting them down, Ferrari have seized the initiative in both Drivers' and Constructors' Championships so far in 2022. RacingNews365.com's Dieter Rencken explains which team is most likely to challenge the Prancing Horse as the season wears on.

Leclerc win Australia
To news overview © XPB

One of the more remarkable aspects of 2022 is that last year's title protagonists are struggling and completely overshadowed by Ferrari, which have won two of the opening three Grands Prix, claimed five from six podiums on offer to their two cars and taken the fastest lap at each outing.

Charles Leclerc heads the Drivers' Championship with 71 points to the 37 of Mercedes youngster George Russell and 33 of the former's team-mate, Carlos Sainz.

By contrast, serial 2014-21 Constructors' Champions Mercedes are visibly struggling on pace and, while lying second in both leagues, trail the Scuderia by 104 to 65 – effectively a whole Grand Prix in arrears after three rounds.

Red Bull, which ran Mercedes close last year and controversially claimed the Drivers' title for Max Verstappen (currently on just 25 points after two retirements in three races) have fared even worse: third on 55 points.

Red Bull suffering costly retirements

True, Red Bull have challenged Ferrari on pace yet (thrice) failed when it really counted: in the closing stages of a race. Thus, Verstappen lost at least two second places - and potentially victories - costing the Dutchman 36 points or more. Without those retirements - said to have been triggered by fuel system issues, although the team is tight on the actual cause - he would be on 61 points, just 10 adrift of Leclerc.

Teammate Sergio Perez was similarly hit in Bahrain, costing him the second place Verstappen had occupied. Granting the Mexican 15 points for a notional third place and if one discounts Verstappen's lost scores, Red Bull are right up there with Ferrari.

IF is, though, F1 spelt backwards. The calculation illustrates how costly Red Bull's retirements have been. Indeed, it will take Verstappen winning six straight rounds in a totally reliable car while simultaneously relegating Leclerc to second simply to break even. On current evidence that is a big ask, even if Red Bull sort their issues posthaste.

So, there we have it after three rounds: Ferrari with a fast, reliable car, Mercedes with a dependable, off-pace silver machine, and Red Bull able to challenge the Scuderia on speed but niggles have cost it 50 per cent of the time.

There could be no greater contrast over 2021's pecking order even if Netflix dramatised the script.

			© XPB
	© XPB

Minding the budget cap

That said, it can be no coincidence that the two top teams are struggling this year, albeit with diametrically opposite issues: both threw their all at the 2021 season, eventually sharing the spoils, albeit controversially so. F1 history relates that two (or more) teams could push each other to the end, yet return fighting fit the next season, but 2021 brought with it a new twist: a $145m budget cap, reducing by $5m per year for 2022/3.

Compounding this challenge was the Covid-delayed introduction of F1's new-era regulatory framework for this season. Where under largely stable regulations any title contenders could develop - for which read 'spend' - through to the end, secure in the knowledge that any upgrades could be bolted onto the next evolution, this luxury no longer applied last year, certainly not for aerodynamic kit.

Thus, whatever was spent on developing a 2021 chassis was largely wasted in a new era context; worse, many a penny spent on their outgoing car reduced the budget available to a team for this year's car. Hard logic suggested that all teams should apply prudence to their old-era cars to build solid foundations for this year, but for their own reasons Mercedes and Red Bull were compelled to chuck cold reason out the door.

The former was absolutely determined to clinch a record-setting eighth constructor title - thus being unbeaten throughout F1's first full hybrid era - while Lewis Hamilton was desperate for an eighth title to pull him clear of tied status with Michael Schumacher. The latter camp aimed to give departing Honda their first F1 title in exactly 30 years as a farewell gift, so, too, continually upped the ante. Thus, both teams pushed ferociously.

Teams struggling to tame porpoising

Something had to give, and it is no coincidence, either, that Red Bull cracked the new aero regulations but struggled on the reliability front. Chief Technical Officer Adrian Newey, who experienced ground-effect porpoising during his early F1 and sports car career and was thus able to work around the phenomenon, has a reputation for designing very fast but rather frail cars whenever technical regulations change substantially.

Indeed, former Red Buller Mark Webber once laconically suggested he was rather relieved Red Bull built race cars and not aircraft, or "I’d be f****d…"

The Mercedes brand has long stood for dependability but, in common with a number of other 'younger' engineering and aerodynamic departments, the engineering squad previously had little or no exposure to the ground-effect bouncing that has epitomised the W13. Porpoising can be cured by raising ride height, but that reduces the ground-effect suction that facilitates cornering performance.

On the flipside, Ferrari, having ended sixth in 2020's classification, realised the SF1000 car was a lame gelding rather than a rampant stallion – which boded badly for 2021, when cars would be largely rolled over with only modest changes to save costs during the pandemic. Thus, the team took the pragmatic decision to freeze development of the SF21 once it complied with the regulation changes, to concentrate on the new era F1-75.

In addition, design legend Rory Byrne, the pencil behind all Schumacher's championship-winning cars, who cut his F1 teeth during the early eighties and thus arguably knows more about porpoising than any other current F1 engineer, is contracted to Ferrari as a consultant. Ominously for the trailing duo, the South African recently extended his gig.

Ferrari's winning ways gave rise to suggestions in the paddock that Ferrari had created unfair advantages for themselves, but the fact is the team played the timing and budget cap game better than the two major British outfits, if for no other reason than having nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Other voices have it that the Scuderia's commercial and design agreements with Haas provide a strategic edge due to their shared resources, yet at the time of writing, no team had submitted a complaint to the FIA.

Who will challenge Ferrari?

As we head for Imola and the fourth round of the championship, who is best placed to challenge Ferrari at the circuit named after the team's founder and his first-born son? Arguably, Red Bull, provided both cars run reliably, because, as team boss Christian Horner said in Melbourne as he downplayed the effects of Verstappen's second retirement in three races: "I'd rather fix a fast car than try to make a reliable and slow one fast."

It is also likely to be cheaper – another crucial factor, as any money spent on this year's car reduces the cash available for 2023's model.

Toto Wolff, Horner's counterpart at Mercedes, is certainly under no illusions about the task ahead, saying, "Of course, we must be realistic, it will take time to make the gains we want, but we're learning as much as we can from each race and finding avenues to push us forward."

However, reliable, slow cars are in a position to score points, while stationary cars aren't – as George Russell proved with third in Australia, which propelled the Briton to second in the rankings. The bottom line is that Ferrari need to capitalise on the woes of Red Bull and Mercedes while they can. In the interim, fans can look forward to the prospect of a three-way scrap at the sharp end once the woes are sorted – as they will be.

Until then, it's advantage Ferrari, thanks to a series of decisions taken early in 2021.

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