By Josh Planos
Jul. 19, 2022, at 6:00 AM
PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY DAN DAO / GETTY IMAGES
At the Austrian Grand Prix a week and a half ago, Charles Leclerc of Scuderia Ferrari captured his third win of the season and the team’s second consecutive victory. But Leclerc’s teammate, Carlos Sainz Jr. — who one week earlier won his first career Grand Prix at Silverstone — had a less enjoyable outing: The Spaniard narrowly escaped his car, which burst into flames due to engine failure on the 56th lap.
Moment Spanish F1 driver Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari engine explodes and catches fire at the side of the Austrian Grand Prix track – before he makes a dramatic escape
It was the perfect encapsulation of the Prancing Horse in 2022: At times the class of the grid, at times a calamitous inferno.
Over the course of 11 races, no team has experienced more peaks and valleys than Ferrari. The most storied team in the history of Formula One racing couldn’t have scripted a stronger start to the season, with a 1-2 finish in Bahrain that snapped a 45-race winless drought.1 But Leclerc and Sainz only completed the track together once over the next three races. And following a 2-3 finish in Miami, which gave Ferrari a 6-point lead in the Constructors’ Championship and Leclerc a 19-point advantage in the Drivers’ Championship, both leads vanished when Ferrari scored just a single podium — Sainz took second place in Monaco — over the next three races. (That stretch included a trip to Azerbaijan, where both Leclerc and Sainz failed to reach the finish line at all — the first time since 2009 that Ferrari lost both drivers in a single Grand Prix.)
Things have improved recently, after wins at both Silverstone and Red Bull Ring. But this being Ferrari, it hasn’t been drama-free. In Austria, Sainz was prepared to overtake defending world champion Max Verstappen when he experienced complete engine failure with just 15 laps to go, and a potential 1-2 finish for Ferrari went up in (literal) smoke. Then Leclerc spent the final sequence of the race battling not only Verstappen but also the throttle of his own vehicle, which was stuck open in an issue that manifested as early as the opening lap.
Generally speaking, “Oh my god, I was scared, I was really scared,” isn’t the message typically delivered by the winning driver — nor is it customary for his team principal to acknowledge that he couldn’t watch the final laps out of worry in the closing moments of a race victory.
As a result of all that, Ferrari now lags behind Red Bull in the Constructors Championship by 56 points, with Leclerc trailing Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship by 38. Those deficits are especially remarkable considering how dominant Ferrari has been in qualifying, capturing pole position in seven of the 11 races.2 But while the Ferraris have been plenty quick when setting the pace on Saturday, no team has seen a larger dropoff in performance in the race itself.
We quantified this by calculating percentile rankings for each driver in each event, on both qualifying and race day, where the top finisher is in the 100th percentile and dead last is in the bottom percentile.3 Then we averaged those percentiles to see which teams have the largest gaps in performance, across all of their drivers. Unsurprisingly, Leclerc and Sainz have collectively posted an average percentile of 88.2 in qualifying — which helps Ferrari edge out Red Bull (88.0) for tops in F1 this season — but their average percentile of 66.9 in races places a distant third behind both Mercedes and Red Bull this year. The gap between those figures (minus-21.3 points) is the biggest between a team’s racing and qualifying results for any team in 2022 so far.
And in fact, no team in the sport’s V6 or V8 eras (since 2006) has experienced a larger gap between average race-finish percentile and qualifying percentile than Ferrari this season. You’d have to go back to the Williams BMW team in 2001 (featuring Ralf Schumacher and a rookie Juan Pablo Montoya) to find a team with a wider split between qualifying and race-day performance.
Biggest shortfalls between a team’s average percentile ranking in qualifying and races during Formula One’s V10, V8 and V6 eras (since 2000)
Percentiles are computed relative to the field in each race and averaged across all of a team’s drivers. When multiple drivers failed to finish, finishing percentile tiebreakers went to the driver with the most laps completed, then the lower starting grid position.
This inability to capitalize on Saturday success with wins on Sunday is a recurring feature for the Scuderia, which faced steep race-day drop-offs in 2016 (minus-8.4), 2017 (minus-10.3), 2018 (minus-8.6) and 2019 (minus-9.1). In 2022, at least, a decent amount of the dip is a result of Ferrari’s choose-your-own-adventure approach to in-race strategy.
On home turf at Imola, after Sainz was knocked out of the race by McLaren’s Daniel Ricciardo on the opening lap, Leclerc took an aggressive pace in the final laps on a wet track while trying to reach the podium. Instead, Leclerc’s car spun off the track and into the wall. Two weeks later in Miami, Ferrari kept both drivers out on the track when a safety car came out late, rather than equipping one or both with fresh tires to challenge the leading Verstappen. “We were let off the hook by Ferrari,” Red Bull team principal Christan Horner said after the win.
In Monaco, Ferrari locked up the front row in qualifying but failed to win the race, largely because the team made multiple gap miscalculations and an errant pit stop for dry tires sabotaged Leclerc’s chances. “If you are leading the race [before pitting] and then you’re finding yourself on fourth position [after], we may have done something wrong,” team principal Mattia Binotto said after. “We certainly made mistakes in our judgment and mistakes in our calls.”
Engine problems halted both cars in Baku, including when Leclerc was leading the race. And at Silverstone, Ferrari again made a puzzling decision to keep one of its racers on the track — in this case, Leclerc — with worn tires during a safety car period while it pitted Sainz, who added soft tires and went on to win the race. This caused Leclerc to fall off the podium and finish fourth. ESPN noted conservatively that Leclerc has lost 72 points this season due to reliability issues and poor strategy.
As the action turns to France this weekend to begin the second half of the season, Ferrari still finds itself somewhere it hasn’t been in years: contention. With an outside chance to catch Red Bull in the team standings and Leclerc performing like a driver capable of winning a world championship, Ferrari remains long on potential despite its up-and-down first half. But the Prancing Horse must improve its strategy and avoid more mechanical blow-ups if the team is to consistently extend its dominance from the qualifying sessions into the races themselves.
Neil Paine contributed research.
In a dominant effort, Leclerc earned pole, won the race and drove the fastest lap.
Leclerc accounts for six, at least twice as many as any other driver.
When multiple drivers failed to finish, finishing percentile tiebreakers went to the driver with the most laps completed, then the lower starting grid position (theorizing that it was more difficult for them to reach the same number of laps if starting from a lower position on the grid, all else being equal).
Josh Planos is a writer based in Omaha. He has contributed to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post. @JPlanos
Formula One (6 posts) Auto Racing (3) Ferrari (3) Max Verstappen (3) Charles Leclerc (2) Carlos Sainz (1)
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