F1 analysis: Why miserable Spanish Grand Prix leaves Ferrari facing a near-impossible task to salvage season

Luke Slater
Both Ferraris finished behind the Red Bull of Max Verstappen - AFP

The 2019 Spanish Grand Prix summed up the current state of Formula One quite well, for both good and bad.

The bad: it was won at the start and Lewis Hamilton's victory never really looked in doubt after the first turn. A fairly dull and predictable race where Mercedes ran out dominant victors on a track which rarely produces thrilling racing. 

The top five was the same top five as every other race in 2019. Despite some late jeopardy, Hamilton won. 

The good: the exciting action came from an incredibly tight midfield which led to some captivating tussles down the field. If only there was a way to get the top three teams as tight. 

The most familiar story, though, is of Ferrari being unable to challenge Mercedes at a time when they need it most.

As Ferrari floundered in fourth and fifth, Mercedes strolled to another 1-2 finish Credit: Getty Images

There was more of the tactical indecision that has characterised their 2019 campaign. But that was a mere sideshow to the Scuderia's lack of pace, as they failed to make the podium, with both drivers finishing behind Max Verstappen's Red Bull. 

Ferrari left the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya after pre-season testing as favourites and brimming with optimism as they aimed to finally end Mercedes' post-2013 dominance. A little over two months has passed, but at every step Ferrari have failed. They now leave Barcelona having been trounced by a Mercedes who have taken a record-equalling five 1-2 finishes in a row. 

Vettel surprises Mercedes with a lightning start before fading

Sebastian Vettel got a fantastic start, and challenged for the lead into turn one Credit: Reuters

If it looked like Mercedes had the edge in free practice, then we realised just by how much after qualifying. Bottas's stunning pole lap of 1.15.406 was over 0.8 seconds quicker than what either Ferrari managed. Charles Leclerc was a whole second adrift. True, Lewis Hamilton was also six-tenths behind Bottas, but much of that was down to his scruffy first run in Q3. 

Come Sunday, hopes of a Ferrari turnaround were slim. But, for a brief moment, things looked up. Vettel got a flyer at the start - even better than Hamilton in second - and very momentarily moved ahead of both Mercedes - it was Ferrari's best moment of the weekend - but he braked too late, locked up and flat spotted his front left tyre and ran wide.

It was the right thing to do: the only hope Vettel had of victory was to get ahead of both Mercedes at the start. He followed Bottas behind in the long, quick turn three but the wily Verstappen went around the outside and took third from him. The flat spotted tyre then compromised his race, he was over seven seconds behind after seven laps. 

From then on he was involved in a debate with his team over his stopping early for fresh rubber, then in another fight with Charles Leclerc. The debate about team orders will rage on as Ferrari looked indecisive in ordering the struggling Vettel to let Leclerc past to chase down Verstappen. Still, Ferrari could have aced their strategy here and the outlook wouldn't be that much better.

At the front, Mercedes were in a class of their own, putting in a performance that seemed more like 2015 than 2019. That is worrying not just for Ferrari but for the state of the championship. The last thing F1 needs is a re-run of their most dominant years from 2014 to 2016, where they won 52 of 59 races, compared to 23 from 41 in 2017 and 2019. 

Is this result worse than it looks?

In isolation, finishing fourth and fifth in Spain is a poor but not disastrous result. Last year's Spanish Grand Prix saw the exact same top four with Vettel finishing a distant fourth behind winner Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Max Verstappen. It is a track where Mercedes have excelled, winning every year since 2013 except for 2016, when Hamilton and team-mate Nico Rosberg collided on the opening lap. 

The real painful reading comes when you place it into full context. Coming into this weekend, Ferrari were looking at a must-win race. True, the same was said of Baku two weeks ago, but the significance of the SF90's performance around the Spanish track carries much more weight. 

Ferrari again failed to make the podium in Spain Credit: Getty Images

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya represents something of a bellwether for general car performance. Whilst a strong car there will not be strong absolutely everywhere - each track is unique - it's a fairly decent measure.  Ferrari's engine upgrade - or perhaps their lower drag levels - seemed to help them out in the first sector.  It certainly helped Vettel out at the start, but everywhere else Mercedes were better. And by a fair margin too. Even in the tight final sector, where Red Bull have usually been the pick of the field, they had the advantage. 

Even when Ferrari have been able to challenge Mercedes this season - in Bahrain and Azerbaijan - they have failed to convert the promise. The ruthless Mercedes, in great contrast, have taken whatever chances they have been given and the only points they have dropped so far in 2019 have been those awarded for fastest lap. 

Can Ferrari salvage anything from 2019?

As a team who challenged for both titles in 2017 and 2018, a bare minimum for 2019 would have been to do so again and the target, at least, to improve. In 2018 they took a pounding in Spain, too, but after it all they were only 27 points behind Mercedes and had won two of the first five rounds.

Now their targets need massive revision. Spain was a kick in the guts for Ferrari not just because of the margin of victory but because of the direction of travel, Mercedes moving further ahead. At the moment, winning five of the next 16 races would represent success but even that looks difficult. 

74 points behind Mercedes before this weekend, that chasm has now opened to 96. Mercedes could have neither car finish in the next two grands prix - and Ferrari finish 1-2 in both of them - and the Silver Arrows will still be leading the championship. 

It will be concerning that Mercedes - and Lewis Hamilton in particular - tend to improve as the season goes on. We said at the start of the season (assuming that the Scuderia were quickest) that for Ferrari to beat Mercedes they needed to start strongly and cleanly. They have done neither.

The amount of performance they have to claw back is huge. It already looks nearly impossible.  As this task becomes greater, the chasing team has to take more and bigger risks. Ferrari have already accelerated their development package but the results in Spain were not great. Or at least, Mercedes' gains were greater.  

Another issue is that Mercedes have two drivers who are delivering. Hamilton's form is pretty much a given, these days. And say what you want about the "new" Bottas - it will be a good result if he can sustain a title challenge - but it looks unlikely that he will tail off as badly as he did last year.

Ferrari's driver line-up is, in theory, a strong point. One is a four-time world champion with bags of experience and victories who is quick over a single lap. The other is one of the most exciting talents in the past decade, a driver who impressed hugely in his first season in the midfield Sauber. But this combination is giving them persistent headaches on the pit wall, trying to maximise their strategy as they trip over each other on track. 

Red Bull's Max Verstappen has been a thorn in Ferrari's side in 2019. He sits third in the drivers' championship ahead Credit: AFP

This has left Ferrari fighting for the final podium position, generally. They've managed this three times out of five, being beaten to third by Verstappen twice.  Mere scraps. Neither driver is in great form. Both have made mistakes, partly down to overdriving, pressure or inexperience. The team, too, is not helping. 

After five rounds, Vettel has 64 points and Leclerc has 57. The gap to leader Hamilton on 112 is gigantic. Verstappen, who drove superbly again in Spain, is third and ahead of both Ferraris in the standings. If they are struggling to beat him, what chance do they have of overhauling Mercedes? 

From now the grands prix come thick and fast: four races in six weeks. The season is starting to look like those of utter Mercedes dominance, where other teams had to feed off errors or failures. This is not great for F1 but it is worse for Ferrari. Next up is Monaco,  a track where Mercedes have struggled since 2016 but now they go into it as favourites. As bad a start Ferrari has made to 2019, it could end up getting much worse.