The team picture
- Constructors standing: P3, 323.5 points
By any measure, the previous season had been an annus horribilis for Ferrari, the team's worst performance in decades. There could be absolutely no repeat of that and immediate improvement had to come in 2021 or else jobs were on the line - not least that of team principal Mattia Binotto. Everyone at Maranello put their heads down and got to work, and the result has been exactly the sort of consistent, reliable recovery that was sorely needed.
One head that had already rolled even before the full extent of last year's problems became clear was that of Sebastian Vettel. The team wanted a young driver line-up that they could build on and grow around, and in place of the four time champion they recruited Carlos Sainz from McLaren to work alongside Charles Leclerc, who had already won the hearts and loyalty of the Ferrari crew. Together the pair helped set things going in the right direction without the familiar over-sized histrionics from fans and media that have too often interfered with the down-to-earth practicalities of what's needed on the factory floor.
That the team seems to be on the right track is endorsed by the way that they got stronger in the second half of the season. They were in fourth trailing McLaren in the constructors standings for the first ten races, finally getting their nose in front after Sainz succeeded in finishing on the podium in Hungary. McLaren's 1-2 success in the Italian Grand Prix reversed the balance of power again, but from Turkey onwards Ferrari were consistently outscoring their rivals and by the time we reached the season finale in Abu Dhabi the matter of third place in the championship was beyond doubt, with Sainz pipping his former McLaren team mate Lando Norris in the drivers standings for good measure. All in all, it was very satisfying given where they had started the season and it was no wonder that Binotto declared Leclerc and Sainz to be strongest driver pairing on this year's grid. He has a point.
The driver line-up
- Charles Leclerc: P7, 159 points
- Carlos Sainz: P5, 164.5 points
When Sainz signed up to replace Vettel at Ferrari, it meant he would be squaring up to Charles Leclerc who had already established himself as the big new star at Maranello. There were fears that favouritism would inevitably mean Sainz would have to put up with 'second driver' status and that he was only there until Mick Schumacher matriculated from the Ferrari Driver Academy in a year or two, ready to form the dream line-up alongside Leclerc. Happily, Sainz proved all the doubters wrong. Admittedly in the early days he was still adjusting to a new team and a new car, giving Leclerc a definite edge in qualifying with Sainz ahead in just three of the first 13 races, but from Italy onwards it was another matter entirely and it was Sainz out-qualifying Leclerc in six of the final nine race weekends.
Leclerc's best qualifying of the year was in Monaco where he took pole, but a late crash in Q3 left him with a fatally wounded gearbox that prevented him from taking up his place on the grid. Instead it was Sainz who stepped into the breech on Sunday, snapping up second place at the chequered flag in his team mate's absence. As he steadily improved, Sainz would beat Leclerc on track in race trim for the first time in France and then twice during the back-to-back Red Bull Ring doubleheader, before taking three more podiums in Hungary, Russia and the season finale in Abu Dhabi.
Despite finishing in front of Leclerc in only six of the 20 races that both men completed, those high value podiums meant that Sainz ended up pipping Leclerc in the points. But it had been a very close battle between the pair and at times they also appeared to be joined at the hip on the track as they ran in formation. It will be fascinating to see what happens next, now that a fully-transitioned Sainz is feeling completely at home.
How 2022 is looking for Ferrari
It was good to see Ferrari rebound in 2021 and back in the top three in the constructors standings. No one enjoyed seeing the team humiliated the way they had been in the previous season, and it really feels like they're on the right track and back in business with their steady, steely campaign to beat McLaren in the championship. It's thanks in part to a strong driver line-up that has proved far more effective than many thought at the start.
This new, grown-up, mature outlook at Maranello under Mattia Binotto looks set to continue next season where the immediate objective will be to ensure McLaren don't pull off a comeback campaign. The bigger challenge will be whether Ferrari can eat into the huge gap between themselves and the two young (in F1 terms) pretenders at the top, Mercedes and Red Bull, who are currently more than two hundred points ahead. That's a huge task, and will inevitably take more than one year to achieve.
Our one concern is whether Ferrari can do enough with their current power units. Their 'secret deal' with the FIA at the end of 2019 was at the heart of their disastrous slump in 2020, and while they've clawed back performance this season it's also notable that the other two teams using Ferrari engines (Haas and Alfa Romeo) have continued to suffer wretched campaigns. Does this suggest Ferrari itself will struggle to match teams running Mercedes and (legacy) Honda units, or will the sport's incoming new rules and regulations for 2022 provide a much-needed and very welcome opportunity to balance things up?