Can Scuderia Ferrari finally banish their demons?

ROME – Nearly a decade has passed since Ferrari won their last Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship in 2008, with Kimi Raikonnen notching the team’s last individual title a year earlier. In recent years, Ferrari has lagged far behind the power of Red Bull and Mercedes, regularly finishing a distant third in the rankings. However, this year is different. At the mid-point of the F1 season, the Italian team’s Sebastien Vettel leads the rankings and there is a firm belief that come November, Scuderia Ferrari will finally vanquish their perennial foes.

 For a team with the most illustrious history in motor racing and a name, which conjures up images of halcyon days with Nicky Lauda and Michael Schumacher at the helm, the last 10 years have been barren to say the least. Nevertheless, as is often the case, in the off-season and during pre-season testing, rumours abounded concerning Ferrari’s pace and the potential of a legitimate title challenge.

 First up on the 2017 racing calendar came Australia and a notoriously difficult hunting ground for the Italian prancing horse. It’s necessary to dig out the 2010 history book to find Ferrari’s last season-opening victory, when Fernando Alonso won on debut for the team in Bahrain, while 2007 marks the last time the Scuderia won in Melbourne. Following a winless season in 2016, it’s fair to say the omens weren’t looking good.

 In a remarkable turn of events, however, Sebastien Vettel cruised to victory and in doing so, ensured that he became the first non-Mercedes driver to lead the Drivers’ Championship since… Sebastien Vettel, when he won the title for Red Bull in 2013.  Potentially an even more striking statistic is the fact that the win was only Ferrari’s ninth since 2011.

 The result also offered a tantalising glimpse of a potential battle between Vettel and Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton, the two most successful drivers of recent times, having amassed a total of seven world championship titles between them.

 During the earlier part of the season the two Formula 1 heavyweights traded race victories as Hamilton took the spoils in China and Spain with Vettel leading the way in Bahrain and in the prestigious surroundings of the Monaco Grand Prix. In sharp contrast to events last year surrounding the battle between the then teammates Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, this year’s title battle started in a respectful fashion. Certain media commentators have even gone as far to describe the pair’s rivalry as “a bromance.”

 The Monaco Grand Prix is oft described as the one every driver wants to win but the iconic race has been particularly unkind to Lewis Hamilton in recent times. In the 2016 running, on a weekend, which perhaps unsurprisingly saw Mercedes, and in particular Hamilton dominate, a team error to cost the Brit a memorable victory.

 The German team misjudged the gap between their driver and Rosberg and Vettel behind, with both able to pass Hamilton before he rejoined from the pit lane. Perhaps this ending was a sign of things to come, as in this year’s Monegasque edition, Mercedes struggled to find any sort of pace and Hamilton eventually finished a dismal seventh with Vettel and Raikonnen completing a Ferrari tour de force and a one-two finish for the prancing horse.

 At this point in the 2017 Formula 1 season, the future seemed bleak for Mercedes with a seemingly impregnable Ferrari wall in front. However, sport has the enduring ability to shock and surprise and the following races in Canada and Azerbaijan only served to increase the excitement.

 In the Canadian metropolis of Montreal on June 11, Hamilton led from pole to the chequered flag in a flawless performance, banishing the doubts surrounding the team’s performance in Monaco.

 “Ferrari have been doing a fantastic job all year but I just think this was Mercedes at its best,” said Hamilton. “It was our first one-two of the year, so in terms of optimal points it was the most powerful weekend we’ve had and we maximised the result. It was a reality check in Monaco. I was hoping that all that work would pay off and it did. It was really down to the team, great minds working together, communicating.”

 Yet more drama was to come in the debut staging of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix in Baku on June 25. Vettel was behind Hamilton when the safety car was deployed following a number of collisions in the pack. As Hamilton braked behind the safety car he was rammed from behind by the German who then pulled alongside the Mercedes’ driver, and gesticulated furiously before inexplicably driving into the side of Hamilton’s car. It appeared to all intents and purposes, like the sort of road rage you’d experience on the M25 at six o’clock on a drizzly Friday afternoon.

 Vettel was given a 10-second drive through penalty for his conduct and the damage to his front wing ultimately cost him the points, as Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo chalked up his first win of the season. The incident seemed to bring Vettel and Hamilton’s “bromance” to an abrupt end with an incandescent Hamilton describing the events as a “disgrace”.

 "Nobody wanted to see the schmoozing anyway, so now the gloves are off," said Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team’s Executive Director, in the immediate aftermath of the race. "The sport needs the rivalry. What we have seen today is the ingredient of a great championship.”

 Earlier this week, Formula 1’s governing body announced that Vettel would face no further action for his actions in Baku, but acknowledged that the German would face severe sanctions should he engage in similar wilfulness in the near future, which could range from disqualification from any given race to a Drivers’ Championship ban.

 Sanctions or no sanctions, the incident gave an intriguing insight into the current predicament of Sebastien Vettel, who is usually one of the grid’s coolest customers. It is clear that Ferrari has the car and the drivers to deliver their first Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in years, but this in its own way brings added pressures. For the first time in a decade the prancing horse has gone from the hunter to the hunted.