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IN THE DRIVER'S SEAT

Ferrari have the speed, but their strategy is the pits

Seven races into a gripping 2016, the question still lurks like an elephant in the room: When are Ferrari going to win?

The answer, on the evidence of Sunday's Canadian GP, is: Soon. But the truth is that they should have won already, in Melbourne at the start of the season, and again in Montreal. Both times, they fumbled the strategy ball.

The famed Scuderia came to Canada ready to bring out the big guns after spending two more development tokens upgrading their powertrain's turbocharger to boost horsepower and speed.

After Sebastian Vettel had dominated the final practice session and then been within 0.178sec of Lewis Hamilton's pole-winning Mercedes, it was clear that the new technical tweaks had had the desired effect.

Hitherto, Ferrari had been weak in qualifying, and quick in the race, but because of the former they had often given themselves something of a mountain to climb, which they could not quite scale.

Vettel left the line faster than drag racer Courtney Force. He seemed destined at last to get a win in the bag for a team who are increasingly under pressure from ambitious and unsentimental boss Sergio Marchionne.

Now they had a car that was as quick as the Mercedes, and Vettel was ready to do something with it come race day.

As the two silver cars ahead of him lagged with yet more clutch operation problems - chassis engineering chief Paddy Lowe says there are some 84 factors which must come together perfectly for an optimal start - Vettel left the line faster than drag racer Courtney Force. He seemed destined at last to get a win in the bag for a team who are increasingly under pressure from ambitious and unsentimental boss Sergio Marchionne.

Ultimately, however, the Prancing Horse stable shot themselves in the hoof.

They had based their strategy on tyre supplier Pirelli's calculations that the fastest way to the chequered flag was to run the ultrasoft tyres on which they had qualified, followed by the supersofts and then the softs; at this circuit it was mandatory to run the softs at least once.

But Pirelli's figures were predicated on performance in track temperatures of 40 deg C, as was the case in second practice. In the race, the track temperature never exceeded 23 deg C, skewing the predictions completely. Ferrari did not appear to have factored that into the equation.

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton went to the 24th lap on his ultrasofts, 13 laps longer than Vettel, then made a set of soft tyres hold together for the next 46 laps. Vettel needed another stop to switch to softs, and did that on the 37th lap and thus had a time when his tyres were far fresher.

Yet he couldn't get closer than 4.3sec on the 55th lap and thereafter had to settle for second.

Such things may seem esoteric to the man in the street, who cares and knows little about tyre compounds and temperatures, but they are the lifeblood of a sport that has spawned several excellent races this season despite Bernie Ecclestone's gloomy suggestion that F1 is so bad that he wouldn't even pay to take his own family.

There was majesty in Hamilton's metronomic ability to conserve his rubber while responding strikingly to every challenge that Vettel was able to pose, that speaks of a fourth world title being a fitting reward.

Like his hero, the late Muhammad Ali whose famous lines he had muttered on his slowing-down lap, the Briton had floated away from Vettel like a butterfly, and in shoving Rosberg aside in the first corner, he had indeed stung the German like a bee.

On this day, when it mattered and the chips were down, it was Hamilton who was The Greatest, which is another reason why triumph slipped again through Ferrari's fingers. But even the three-time champion knows that a victory for them is imminent.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 14, 2016, with the headline 'Ferrari have the speed, but their strategy is the pits'. Print Edition | Subscribe