In Good Conscience

Ferrari must fix trust and confidence after recent farce

Formula One has crossed the oceans and landed in Texas singing the praises of all things American because, of course, the paymaster now is Liberty Media. He who pays the piper, and all that.

However, with Mercedes almost across the finish line in both the drivers' and manufacturers' races, the reality is that the season was won and lost in Asia.

Ferrari's hope, almost expectation, of regaining supremacy after almost a decade of impotence disappeared like air out of a deflating tyre.

The tangled mess of machinery when Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen collided at the start in Singapore. The turbo failure in Malaysia. And then, almost tragicomic, Vettel's race ruined before it could begin because of a misfiring spark plug in Japan.

Three non-races. Three implosions of mechanical and human failure. And the competitive element to this season was over.

The spark plug that didn't spark was the final indignity. A tiny component costing less than 100 Singapore dollars triggered the inevitable soul searching in the Ferrari factory whose annual budget is close to two thirds of a billion dollars.

"It's a problem we probably ignored over time because it was never of such importance," said Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne after the spark plug failure in Suzuka. "Now, we've had at least three occasions where we've really seen the devastating impact on performance.

But in races where judgments are made in split seconds not just at the driving wheel but in the pits where crashed machinery has to be replaced at lightning speed, the human factor is paramount.

"We'll fix it."

Fix what exactly? The turbulent emotion that makes theirs the most heated garage in the paddock?

The hot-headedness that made Vettel (and more startlingly even the ice man Raikkonen) risk their race for a split second of competitive racing?

The minute attention to detail that makes Mercedes such a nailed-on favourite to romp home to their fourth championship in a row? That same meticulousness for which Ferrari were known when the Prancing Horse reeled off seven constructors' and six drivers' titles in the first decade of this century?

One suspects that Marchionne, who is also the chief executive of Ferrari's parent company, the mammoth Fiat-Chrysler group, will look hard and long and ruthlessly into the operation.

Already he has hired a new woman. Maria Mendoza has been put in charge of quality control at Ferrari HQ in Maranello.

Senora Mendoza might know all that can be known about metals and chemicals. But in races where judgments are made in split seconds not just at the driving wheel but in the pits where crashed machinery has to be replaced at lightning speed, the human factor is paramount.

Quality control is the overarching phrase for it. Drill down hard into that phrase, in the F1 garage or in any walk of life, and it comes down to trust and teamwork. Who, if anyone, becomes accountable for checking and double checking that a new spark plug will fire with absolute reliability the instant it is supposed to do on the grid?

Whose responsibility can it be to know that a plug that presumably sparked well enough in practice or came as new out of the packaging would misfire the instant the car was on the start line, or ready for the warm-up lap?

We watch mechanics pour like ants over the body, the wheels, the chassis of these monster racing machines and take for granted that each and every one of them knows his or her stuff.

Toto Wolff, the head of motor sports at Mercedes, said this week that good fortune has played its part in taking his team out of Ferrari's slipstream and into what looks like an insurmountable lead.

"Good fortune, yes," he said, "and we put ourselves in the right position to make the most of the opportunities.

"The team are operating at an incredibly high level in every area, and continuing to develop."

And Wolff talked about obsessive attention to detail, about Lewis Hamilton coming back from the summer break to extract everything from the car, and everything from the mechanical minds around him.

"Still," said Wolff, "there are four races to go, and 100 points to score. We take nothing for granted."

It is far from being explained by so-called Teutonic German thoroughness. There was a time, earlier in this season and certainly last, when Hamilton became morose and reacted with mistrust to those around him, to his team-mate, even to the mechanical balance underneath him.

Now, though, Hamilton is in America. He has made it his home from home. He has won four of the five races since the US Grand Prix moved to Austin at what the Americans call the Circuit of the Americas - as if Mexico and Brazil, two absolutely classical circuits still to come this season, are any less important in the calendar.

As it happens, there is fascination to see what speeds the modified F1 beasts can reach down the long straights and through the sweeping curves of Austin.

There is a very early test on man and machinery in the steep incline into the first corner, which some of the drivers describe as literally blind into the apex.

And as Max Verstappen, the resurgent young charger of Red Bull testifies, there is the added challenge, the thrill he calls it, of daring to brake really late to gain an advantage even when torrential rain comes unexpectedly into the fray.

Meanwhile they all sing to the tune that it's great to be in the States, the new home of F1 ownership. Fernando Alonso is thrilled to be back in America where he took time out to race at the Indy 500 this year.

Force India's Sergio Perez is excited by the prospect of his Mexican fans in the grandstands, regardless of the Trump Wall talk.

The young Canadian Lance Stroll looks forward to having fun "with your barbecues and cowboy hats".

Daniel Ricciardo loves going to places like Pete's Piano Bar and Barton Springs. And he makes it sound like a holiday where, in truth, the pressure is on to keep the foot to the floor and keep the Red Bull on the road.

Four races to go, only 100 points left in the title race, and Vettel is trying to be a darned good sport and pretend that his 2017 dream is not over until it's over.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2017, with the headline 'Ferrari must fix trust and confidence after recent farce'. Print Edition | Subscribe