Two weeks before the official launch of their 2017 car, a cold splash of icy reality this week brought Italian optimism about a possible and long-awaited Ferrari revival down to earth with a bang.
When Sebastian Vettel marked Ferrari’s first day of tyre testing for Pirelli’s new season wet-weather compounds with a dramatic session-ending crash on Wednesday, it was widely seen as an all-too-familiar signal of what may lie ahead.
After a decade in the doldrums, despite fielding two world champions and enjoying unrivalled emotional support, the scuderia remain frustrated – a work in progress, a team in transition that has been sworn to secrecy in a bid to turn the tide — starting, they hope, with a strong result at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix on March 26.
The team has not won a race since the four-time champion German claimed a spectacular victory at the 2015 Singapore Grand Prix, enduring a full season without success last year as internal strife – including the sad departure of technical director Briton James Allison, for family reasons -- led to a long agony in the full glare of the Italian sports media.
Team boss Maurizio Arrivabene, in particular, felt the pressure amid mounting speculation over his position and future with the team.
Ferrari has not claimed a constructors’ championship since 2008, nor a drivers’ title since Kimi Raikkonen snatched the crown from Lewis Hamilton and McLaren in the final races of 2007.
That the Finn is back in his second spell at the team alongside Vettel in a season that marks the 10th anniversary of that landmark achievement – his only championship triumph – endorses a widespread feeling that, for all their commitment, innovation and industry, Ferrari are unlikely to overhaul Mercedes and Red Bull this year.
Vettel’s crash, in manufactured wet conditions at the team’s Fiorano test track, came when he lost control of a modified version of the SF15-T machine – a two-year-old car drafted in for the job – may have little relevance to the season ahead, but did nothing to boost confidence.
The 2017 contender, to be revealed on February 24 during an online launch at Fiorano, has yet to be seen – amid stories that the team is considering using 3D printing technology for an innovative piston design to boost its engine performance.
No comment and no hints of what to expect from the so-called 668 project have leaked out following Ferrari president Sergio Marchionne’s order that the team would work in secrecy throughout the European winter.
For some, this means optimism. For others, something else.
According to reports, in Italy, the engine department chief designer Sassi Lorenzo and Enrico Gualteri, who is responsible for assembly, are hoping to introduce bold changes that technical director Mattia Binotto, who transferred from the engine team, expects to be a major breakthrough.
But will it be enough? And will it work?
One of Ferrari’s great drivers of the past, Austrian Gerhard Berger, said that despite a brief upswing at the end of last season, he fears another season without much progress.
“Ferrari is sensitive to any criticism,” Berger told Auto Motor und Sport last week. “It is somehow the 'golden calf', which one must not touch, but the reality is that it is on a downward spiral...
“My heart is Ferrari and it hurts me to criticise, but the situation now is like this: Ferrari in 2015 with luck took some successes and they assumed that was an achievement.
“But they are now really far from Mercedes and Red Bull. Somehow Ferrari is back where they were when I drove for them [from 1993 to 1995].”
Berger added his view that Vettel under-estimated the challenge when he moved from Red Bull.
“He underestimated what Michael Schumacher did at the time,” he explained. “Michael went to Ferrari, but with Benetton people in his luggage. When he arrived, Ferrari was in the state of today.
“Sebastian should have taken the step to Ferrari only if he could, as Michael did, [but with Benetton], take key figures from Red Bull along with him. I do not see there will be much change at Ferrari in 2017 -- and then Vettel will need to make a decision.”
Berger’s pessimism met some contrasting views in Raikkonen, the team’s last champion, in 2007. For ‘the Iceman’, it is too soon to even make a wild guess at the future.
"We will know, once we get the new cars and hit the track, as obviously there's a lot of rule changes so we have to wait and see," he said. "It's pointless to speculate with such a big change, so hopefully we are where we want to be and deserve to be."
"There are for sure positive things like how we've been working lately and doing things," he said. "We all work well together, even if the results are not maybe what we always want, but I see a lot of good things from the team and obviously, in 2017, hopefully, we are where we want to be.”