Imola showed why Ferrari’s Hypercar program is still a work in progress

The 6 Hours of Imola was a truly memorable WEC race, filled with twists and turns, making it a real challenge to unpick in the immediate aftermath. So, with time to reflect, just what was the biggest story of the weekend?

Was it WRT’s 1-2 in LMGT3, which scored BMW its first WEC win? Peugeot’s tough first outing with the new 9X8? The overall success of the event and its record crowd? How about Toyota’s unlikely victory? No. For this writer, it was Ferrari’s strategic error, what it says about where the program currently finds itself and why nobody should panic.

The 499Ps had the pace in dry conditions to score a first win on home soil, something that was evident in the body language displayed by members of the team for most of the weekend. This was a group that was full of confidence and seemed poised to add to its win tally in front of grandstands packed with rabid supporters. Through practice, qualifying and into the second half of the race, this was clearly Ferrari’s to lose. Yet to the surprise of many, it did.

When the track conditions quickly changed with a rain shower in the fourth hour of the race on Sunday afternoon – and it became a major test of strategic nous as well as speed – the wily old fox that is Toyota Gazoo Racing took advantage. In doing so, it delivered a timely reminder to the paddock that it is the reigning Hypercar Manufacturer World Champion for a reason. Its edge in the experience department may have diminished over the past 12 months and Qatar week may not have gone its way, but this is a team that should never be counted out.

Following a rather disappointing run in qualifying, its No. 7 GR010 HYBRID had already climbed to second from sixth on the grid by the time Mother Nature intervened. However, it didn’t appear to be the favorite until it brought both cars in for wet tires at precisely the right time, taking control of the race while its rivals further down the pit lane at Ferrari were stuttering.

Porsche Penske Motorsport, it must be said, was in this fight too and continued to look like a force to be reckoned with en route to a double podium. Still, neither factory 963 was able to get the better of the No. 7, which was driven masterfully all afternoon by Mike Conway, Nyck de Vries and Kamui Kobayashi. 

After the race, Kobasyhi told the media that he feels sudden downpours have become somewhat of a regular occurrence when it’s his time to drive. 

“As soon as I jumped in the car, it started to rain and I was on slick tires,” he said. 

“Honestly, this sort of thing always happens! Even last year at Le Mans, I jumped in and there was massive rain and I couldn’t see! It’s always like this when it’s my time in the car…”

Perhaps that’s why he was able to soak up the pressure when he was handed the not-so-simple task of saving fuel and fending off Kevin Estre. This came at a point when Ferrari’s highest-placed 499P – the No. 50 – was pushing hard to salvage a fourth-place finish, much to the disappointment of the team and its fans.

What can we take away from this sequence? Well, with fourth and seventh-place finishes for its works 499Ps, the Ferrari Hypercar team showed once again that it is not yet the finished article. 

For a team that stormed to victory at Le Mans in its first attempt last year, you’d think that attempting to argue that it’s still a work in progress would be ridiculous. But the fact is that after yesterday’s race, in which AF Corse had three cars in the fight for victory at the halfway mark before the error from the strategy desk, it’s becoming harder to conclude otherwise. This is a program that (understandably) has a high level of expectation placed on it and just one win in nine races to show for its efforts.

Ferrari’s potential is obvious, but the defeat-from-the-jaws-of-victory strategy error at Imola showed there are still some wrinkles to iron out. Motorsport Images

Ferrari appears to hold a similar opinion. Giuliano Salvi, the team’s sportscar race and testing manager, admitted that the team has work to do before it can become a regular winner during a post-event technical briefing.

“The information we had on our side was obviously wrong,” he said, describing the moment that the team opted to stay on slicks while the rest of the field pitted for wets. “We thought the weather would be just temporary.

“We need to revise our chain of communication, for sure. It was a mistake. We cannot say it was a good race, because we based this on some scenarios that were wrong. But our strategy is not to finger-point.

“Sometimes you look at the (weather) radar and you think it should rain and it doesn’t, and you stop relying on the signal. We thought it was the kind of situation where you don’t need to rely on the radar too much. We misjudged the situation.”

In addition to misreading the conditions, he pointed out that in hindsight, the team also would have been better off hedging its bets by splitting the strategy between its cars.

Yes, it was interesting to hear from the source where it all went wrong. But what really stood out was his demeanor. He was calm, honest and surprisingly – despite taking the situation seriously – even managed to inject humor into the huddle. This is because while the result was sub-optimal, it’s not all bad news for fans of the Prancing Horse. 

From a bird’s eye view, this was a significantly better weekend than the one in Qatar, where it didn’t contend at all. It must also be said that like every other factory in the hotly-contested, BoP-governed Hypercar class, Ferrari’s management will have known going into the season to expect good days and bad days, possibly in equal measure.

Ferrari certainly wasn’t the only OEM searching left disappointed by the result on Sunday. Alpine, Cadillac and Peugeot in particular were left with few positives to focus on after a difficult weekend.

It can therefore head to Spa safe in the knowledge that unlike many of its competitors -–which are still getting up to speed with brand-new machinery, busy working on upgrades or a combination of both – it has all the right ingredients. It just needs to put them all together to get back to winning ways. 

Ferrari’s Hypercar team has shown signs on many occasions that it can become one of the standout sportscar factory efforts of the modern era. But as Sunday’s self-inflicted wounds show, it is not quite there yet.

The 499P is top-notch. It possesses the lethal combination of speed and reliability and doesn’t suffer from any inherent weaknesses – hence no updates were developed over the winter. Its driver roster and technical team are world-class too. 

All that’s needed, it would seem, is a little more time for the creases to be ironed out for it to become the force many thought it would be after winning the centenary Le Mans 24 Hours. 

Story originally appeared on Racer