Ferrari defends aggressive action in disappointment at home race

FORMULA ONE: Ferrari is still in control of both championships despite a late-race crash following an aggressive strategy change that cost Charles Leclerc a podium at last Sunday’s Italian Grand Prix at Imola, but team boss Mattia Binotto says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc navigates a corner at the Imola Grand Prix last Sunday (April 24). Photo: AFP

This wasn’t the homecoming Ferrari expected.

Ferrari had not arrived in Italy since its heady days of dominance in 2004, leading both championships. The sell-out crowd expected a hero’s reception and with the competitive car, title leader Charles Leclerc in a streak of form and Red Bull Racing on the brink of a reliability crisis, all signs pointed to a big weekend for world motorsport’s most celebrated team.

But when things seem too good to be true, they probably are – especially if you’re a modern-day Ferrari fan.

Red Bull Racing, outfitted with reliability and aerodynamic upgrades as well as a weight saving course, dominated the weekend from start to finish. Max Verstappen took pole on Friday, beat Leclerc in Saturday’s sprint to victory and commanded Sunday’s Grand Prix, leading every lap and setting the fastest lap to earn maximum points for his second career Grand Slam.

Ferrari’s weekend could not have contrasted more starkly.

Carlos Sainz crashed out of qualifying and the race, although Charles Leclerc bolstered the battle against Verstappen, propelled by a 46-point lead over the Dutchman earlier in the weekend. He led most of the sprint race but was eventually wiped out by poor tire wear and he was on pace on Sunday but struggled to get past Sergio Perez’s rearguard in the battle for second place as Red’s car broke Bull Racing was too fast on a straight line and the track was too slippery from a pre-race downpour to try anything creative.

But by the last 10 laps, Ferrari had decided it wasn’t in the mood to settle for third place.

Leclerc was called out for fresh soft tires and Red Bull Racing responded by bringing Perez into the pits a lap later. The gap, previously a frustrating three seconds, shrank to less than one and suddenly the Monegasque was in with a hoot.

But with a rare overtake from Imola in his sights, he took too big a bite into the curbs at Variant Alta and was spat backwards into the guard rails. He was lucky that he came out only slightly damaged and after a pit stop for repairs he was able to finish sixth.

“I was too greedy and paid the price for it,” he said dejectedly after the race.

It was the sort of error that characterized his early years in Formula 1, when his phenomenal speed was not matched by his machines, often causing him to oversteer and crash.

But this year isn’t about the same desperation. In 2022 he clearly has the car under him to fight for wins and the championship. Instead, it’s a more philosophical question for the Monegasque and his Italian team: how much are they willing to risk?

Leclerc still comfortably leads Verstappen in the title standings by a margin of 27 points, albeit less than 46, but the season is long and the gap is bridgeable. An uncertain development war is also looming to cloud the competitive picture, and RBR is already bringing updates thoughtfully and swiftly.

Leclerc noted after the race that he could miss the seven points he lost late in the race, but it could be just as true that next November he will miss the extra seven points that would have put him so close to second-placed Perez . It’s too early to play the numbers game; he has to make hay while the sun is shining.

“I think there will never be any regrets asking a driver to push,” said Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto. “It’s part of our job to drive to the limit.

“Of course we’re fighting for the best places and we know we’re leading the championship.”

“No regrets. I think we made the right choice and that’s it.”

In its first legitimate title campaign in years, Ferrari chooses to be bold – it has to be if it wants to beat the veteran Red Bull Racing team. But it must first learn its limits if it is to succeed.

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