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No home comforts for Vettel and ailing Ferrari

Italian team are nowhere near ready to deliver the goods on home soil.

Published: 03rd September 2016 08:18 AM  |   Last Updated: 03rd September 2016 08:18 AM   |  A+A-

Ten years ago at Monza, an emotional Michael Schumacher stunned the motor racing world when he announced his retirement from the sport just minutes after standing on the top step of the podium for Ferrari. The famous old team have never been the same since.

Kimi Raikkonen may have stolen the title from under McLaren's noses the following year, but that was more a testament to the British team's implosion, gripped in the swarm of the 'Spygate' espionage affair and a poisonous rivalry between Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso.

The years since have brought plenty of promise, but their toil has not been rewarded with the championships Ferrari crave and the Italian public demand. Where calm stability was needed, upheaval has become their stock in trade. Technical directors and team principals have been changed like light bulbs.

The finest drivers of their generation have struggled to turn the team around as Schumacher did in the late 1990s. Alonso, the man viewed as the heir to the seven-time champion, left after five fruitless seasons.

For a time Sebastian Vettel seemed to be the savour, but the four-time champion seems powerless to arrest their slide, so much so that Italian journalists have begun referring to his 'Alonsofication' (the Spaniard went to Ferrari in the hope of being given a championship-winning car only to be disappointed).

Unlike Alonso, Vettel is a steadfast team player, the only glue holding everything together in turbulent times. But even for the unflappable German, frustration is beginning to show. He has openly challenged strategy calls in races and bemoaned the lack of "nice questions" in the drivers' press conference before this weekend's Italian Grand Prix, by far the most important race of the year for the Scuderia. The questions would change if the story changed, or if there was a valid reason for Ferrari's malaise. But with an enormous budget coupled with the most evocative brand in the sport, this year it has been one of unyielding disappointment.

They came into it with their optimistic chairman, Sergio Marchionne - a ruthless operator who continually ratchets the pressure up on the team - demanding a fully-fledged championship challenge. The results make grim reading: no victories or podiums since the Austrian Grand Prix at the start of July. Red Bull have taken over as the closest challengers to Mercedes.

It is not surprising that Vettel is growing weary. "If you're a lot quicker then you're in a much better position to win races, you score more points and you get nicer questions," he said. "The more competitive you are the less then you have to deal with that sort of question, which is not a problem but it's just a little boring if every weekend it's the same question. You give the answer, you thought you've answered their question and then it comes up again and again and again."

Vettel said by nature he is not a patient man, but he is tied to Ferrari for the foreseeable future. The problem is things appear to be getting worse. Struck by the tragedy of losing his wife, James Allison, their highly-respected technical director, left the team. The political environment - which was enough to deter Adrian Newey from moving there a few years ago despite money being no object - seems to have played some role. A dramatic change in the technical regulations is on the way in 2017 and Ferrari are not well placed to thrive. Their new technical director, Mattia Binotto, is an engine man by trade.

The problem is people, according to Bernie Ecclestone. In the past F1's ringmaster has tried to help Ferrari hire star staff, but no longer with Marchionne at the helm. "I think you can guarantee it's a people problem," Ecclestone said. "They have the money necessary, they can buy all the equipment, they have a good factory. It's got to be people. I want them to win. I'd love them to win here, but they won't."

Alain Prost, another four-time champion who never took a title with Ferrari, sees parallels with his own fraught time at the team. "It's never very stable," the Frenchman said. "I had a fantastic 1990 and an awful 1991, and only because of the politics inside the team. You think that it's OK and suddenly everything changes, all the time. That's the problem."

The only time in recent memory when Ferrari have broken this debilitating cycle is when the Italians were not in charge. Jean Todt as team principal (French), Ross Brawn as technical director (English), Rory Byrne as team principal (South African), and Schumacher as the charismatic lead driver (German), proved the perfect combination. As Niki Lauda, who won two titles as a driver with Ferrari and is now chairman of Mercedes, has said: the English were the perfect bridge between Italians and Germans at that time.

One of the lesser known members of the Schumacher era, Aldo Costa, now wears Mercedes colours. To Costa's great hurt, he was fired by Ferrari in 2011 and has gone on to be instrumental in the Silver Arrows' dominance of the last few years.

Asked what it was like to be an Italian working for Mercedes, a throwaway comment from Costa was telling. "I love everything Italian. But I like as well to be European, more open-minded," he said. "So I love to work for this team, to have this international experience."

Several big names have come and gone since. Now with Maurizio Arrivabene as team principal, harmony is hard to find. Vettel and Raikkonen are good friends but that has not stopped the two banging wheels in the first corner of two races this year.

Relations with the outside world have faltered, even with the inbuilt bias towards Ferrari. Their media operation, for instance, may as well be non-existent. The default is to shut down, to turn away from the outside world.

Marchionne is expected to survey this troubled team in the paddock over the weekend. The 64-year-old, who does not garner the same respect or admiration as his predecessor, Luca di Montezemolo, is yet to find the answer.

Some relief is desperately needed or the pressure could build on Marchionne himself.

 Italy expects and Ferrari are some way from delivering.

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