Searching for red letter day

Searching for red letter day

Formula One: Ferrari, the sports most respected name, is in crisis after a poor season

Kimi Raikkonen... on the way out

The cars of the outfit he is joining, by contrast, qualified 13th and 15th on the street circuit and went on to finish the race in 10th and 13th places, virtually unnoticed.

The Scuderia Ferrari can be grateful for the spate of headlines currently generated by Formula One. The Renault scandal, the battle between Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello and the renaissance of Lewis Hamilton have served to obscure the fact that the Italian team are going through another of the bad patches for which they were once renowned. A season that began ingloriously in Melbourne six months ago has disintegrated to the point where it can be said that Singapore represented their lowest point in three and a half decades.

Belatedly, it seems, they are experiencing the slump widely predicted when Michael Schumacher went into retirement at the end of the 2006 season. It was a departure that, unhelpfully coinciding with the exit of Jean Todt, the team principal, and Ross Brawn, the technical director, always seemed likely to put an end to a golden age.

During Schumacher's 11 years in collaboration with Todt and Brawn, the team won 87 of 188 grands prix. Yet the lights stayed on for a while after the German's exit and in the following two seasons there were 17 wins from 35 races, with a world championship in the first year for Kimi Raikkonen and a near-miss for Felipe Massa 12 months later.

With 14 of this season's races already gone, by contrast, their tally amounts to one win, one second place, four thirds, too many retirements and a variety of misfortunes, including the mid-season removal of a couple of senior engineers and the terrible accident to Massa in Budapest. A team that claimed 69 pole positions during the Schumacher era has made the front row of the grid only once this year, with an average qualifying position on the fifth row.

Few men have watched the decades-long Maranello soap opera with as much expertise as John Surtees, who won the title as a Ferrari driver in 1964 and was sacked three years later after falling out with the management. He identifies the decision to replace Schumacher with Raikkonen, who learnt the other day that he will be leaving at the end of this season to make way for Alonso, as the start of their problems.

"There's a greater strength in depth in the team now," Surtees said, "but since Schumacher left they've lacked a driver capable of binding the team together. Signing Raikkonen was the first mistake. He's talented, but he's not the sort that provides an uplift. And despite all the technical developments in the modern era, you still need the driver's input to motivate the personnel and provide seat-of-the-pants feedback for the engineers. When you've got a driver who works with the team, it makes a hell of a difference."

Watching the red cars of Raikkonen and Giancarlo Fisichella, the latest replacement for the absent Massa, trundle around among the also-rans under the Singapore floodlights, some observers thought back to the summer of 1973, when the Scuderia turned up at Silverstone for the British grand prix with just one car, a new design entrusted to the hands of Jacky Ickx, among the three or four fastest drivers of the time. This ungainly vehicle, based on a British-built chassis, was so inadequate that the dispirited Belgian could manage only 18th place on the grid and, despite a first-lap accident that eliminated eight of his rivals, could finish no higher than eighth.

So traumatic was the experience that Enzo Ferrari decided to withdraw the team from the two subsequent grands prix in order to avoid further humiliation. Ickx was freed to drive for other teams, while the Scuderia limped back with a single car for their test driver, Arturo Merzario, who finished 15th and 16th in the last two races of the season, the prelude to a wholesale cleansing of the stables.

Before the start of the 1974 season Ferrari hired a new sporting director, the 27-year-old Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, a former rally navigator with no previous Formula One experience. There was also a new No 1 driver, the 25-year-old Niki Lauda, along with a brand-new car. Together they won the 1975 world championship. By recruiting Todt, Brawn, Schumacher and others, Montezemolo began the process of rebuilding a distressed, dishevelled and discredited institution.

This time around, under Stefano Domenicali who took over from Todt after the 2007 season, the team has struggled. Instead of trying to keep up with their rivals, he has thrown the team's resources into planning a new car, ready for Alonso's arrival and Massa's return in 2010.

"It's a very different Ferrari team today," Surtees said, looking back at previous crises, "but certain things remain the same. They're hoping that Alonso's the answer. Some things about his character have to be looked at, but he's the nearest thing to the kind of balanced, complete driver they need." And only by following the example set 35 years ago, and providing a new star driver with the equipment to win races and titles virtually from the start, can the present regime dispel doubts and restore the expected lustre to the sport's most famous name.

The Guardian