This week saw the beginning of Ferrari’s annual assault on the F1 world championships, with their media event in the Dolomites in Italy. As usual, the event was full of hyperbole, coming not least from team principal Stefano Domenicali and new star Fernando Alonso. How much will that be intimidating their rivals, though? How much is there to be gained by talking the talk two months before the season begins?
Domenicali was always destined to be asked this week about Michael Schumacher, the man on the back of whom Domenicali arguably rose to fame. Sticking to the party line put out by Luca di Montezemolo, Domenicali stayed true to the idea that Schumacher was like an unfaithful spouse and that although his leaving – perhaps betrayal – was painful, they had to remember the good times together. But then came the killer punch. “We should not forget what Ferrari has done for Michael,” the team principal said. This harks back to an age-old Ferrari perception, one that the great Enzo Ferrari first engendered – that drivers are always mere drivers, and that Ferrari the marque is bigger than any one of its parts. The trouble is, that with Schumacher and what he did with Ferrari, that idea is arguably not accurate.
Domenicali’s implication was that Schumacher would find it difficult being in a foreign environment, and that without the structure of support he had at Ferrari he might struggle. This may be true. But to assert such a thing is perhaps dangerously to underestimate the judgement and skill of Schumacher. Particularly as, at this moment, no-one has any idea how fast their car is in relation to its competitors.
Fernando Alonso cleverly acknowledged this, downplaying his chances at the start of the season and blaming the lack of testing for his not being acclimatised. “I know that perhaps in the first three, four races we will not be 100 per cent adjusted to the car and to the team,” said the Spaniard. But his other comments in the interview betray another jibe at Schumacher, saying he did not understand the German’s motivation.
“It s almost impossible to find the motivation to race for another team after racing for Ferrari, because you will never find the same environment or have the same feeling due to its history,” Alonso said, in the context of his own career. But its wider meaning will not be lost on the keener observers of F1 drivers’ mind games.
The problem with Alonso and Domenicali’s tactics is that they are all very well if Ferrari can back them up with a decent machine. If not, they look a bit silly. Psychological unsettling tactics are not something Schumacher has generally been susceptible to, although Alonso will know that he himself is one of the few drivers Schumacher will genuinely fear on the track. It all depends how fast that Mercedes GP car is – but one thing is for certain: Ferrari know exactly who they want to beat this season.