Ferrari narrowly avoided the embarrassment of a Q1 knockout in qualifying but still hit a new low in the 2020 Formula 1 season at the Belgian Grand Prix.

One year on from the team locking out the front row at Spa-Francorchamps – the scene of its first win of the 2019 season - Ferrari’s main target this time around was evading losing at least one of its cars in the first segment of qualifying on Saturday.

Ferrari always knew it was in for a tough time at the power-hungry Spa circuit, which rewards an efficient car and strong straight-line speed, an area the team is significantly lacking after a series of rule clarifications over the winter resulted in a drop in engine performance.

Ferrari’s problems began during Friday practice on what proved to be a hugely difficult day that reinforced the full scale of the team’s dramatic slump in competitiveness this year.

Those struggles continued into Saturday in what was a miserable final practice session in which Charles Leclerc could only take 17th, with Sebastian Vettel 20th and the slowest driver in the field.

It left Ferrari staring down the barrel of the very real possibility of seeing one of its cars eliminated in Q1. In the end, Leclerc and Vettel scraped past the Q1/Q2 hurdle as Leclerc moved up to 13th, one place ahead of Vettel, who was only two-tenths clear of George Russell’s Williams.

Ferrari ended qualifying as the seventh-fastest team, only beating the cars from Williams, Alfa Romeo and Haas.

It marked the first time this season that Ferrari has suffered a double Q2 elimination and has failed to reach Q3 – the top-10 shootout – with at least one of its two SF1000 cars.

Vettel admitted that Ferrari’s struggles ultimately came as “no surprise” following its severe lack of pace on Friday and Saturday morning.

"It is the true picture of what the car can do around here today," the four-time world champion admitted after the session.

"Obviously we tried everything we can, and there was a lot of effort going in from last night to today trying to make things better.

"I think we did a little bit. Obviously we're not where we want to be, but that's not the first race and the first qualifying where that's the case."

As Vettel rightly pointed out, after Saturday morning it looked unlikely that Ferrari would even be able to progress into Q2.

In some ways, it can be argued that the team’s result was ultimately something of an achievement as it salvaged some consolation by avoiding a complete disaster from what is shaping up to be another weekend to forget at Maranello.

Leclerc acknowledged it was difficult to find an explanation for the gulf in contrast between Ferrari’s performance at Spa just 12 months after it utterly dominated the Belgian Grand Prix.

"It's a big step back from the others, so we need to try and find the main issue to try and address it," Leclerc said.

"It's not a good day but it's like this at the moment. We need to keep working hard.

"Everybody in the team needs to keep their heads up, even though it's very difficult on a day like this.

"I can also understand the fans at home that are very disappointed. It's understandable, but as drivers, we'll try to make the best race possible tomorrow, even though we can't expect any miracles."

While the engine clampdown has undoubtedly hurt Ferrari, it is not the sole reason for Ferrari’s lack of performance at Spa.

The other Ferrari-powered Alfa Romeo and Haas cars were able to improve on their qualifying lap times versus 2019, albeit only marginally.

With Ferrari beaten by its midfield rivals across all three sectors of the 7.004km circuit, Spa was the clearest proof yet of just how flawed its 2020 challenger is in pretty much every department.

Speaking before qualifying, Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto said a number of issues are holding back its cars performance, not just its lack of straight-line speed.

"We struggle to make the tyres work," Binotto explained. "We are lacking grip, both in braking and acceleration. There is no overall performance to the car. So certainly the drivers are complaining about grip, overall grip.

"I think it’s not the potential of our car, and that's certainly not the normal position for our car, if you compare where we are on the grid and the relative competitiveness to the others.

"I think it's the same situation on both cars, so it's not driver related. It's really the way we set up the car in order to find the right window on the tyres."

Ferrari also experimented with varying downforce levels on its cars throughout Friday practice in an attempt to work out the pros and cons of the drag ‘trade off’ dilemma that teams face at Spa.

But with Renault and AlphaTauri successfully pulling off similar approaches as Daniel Ricciardo starred to grab fourth, and Daniel Kvyat and Pierre Gasly locked out row six ahead of Leclerc and Vettel, it cannot use that as an explanation for its problems.  

Ferrari is already facing one of its worst seasons for many years and points in Sunday’s race look hard to come by on outright pace alone. 

Commenting on Ferrari’s performance, Mercedes F1 team boss Toto Wolff said the team’s slump is “not good” for F1. 

“Ferrari is an iconic brand and they should be racing at the very front,” Wolff said..

“It’s not good for Formula 1, not good for the competition at the front and I very much feel for all the Tifosi for this lack of performance. 

“But at the end, one must question the priorities that have been set in recent times and where the lack of performance comes from. Overall, nobody from the fans and the Ferrari people deserve such a result.  

“It’s wrong to say Ferrari’s priorities because that drags Ferrari and everybody at Ferrari into this,” he added. “It’s maybe the decisions that have been made within the team from certain members of the team.”

Unfortunately for Ferrari, its troubles are unlikely to end in Belgium, with more misery expected to follow at its power-sensitive home races at Monza and Mugello, the latter of which is the team’s own circuit. It may have dodged a bullet this time around, but there could be worse to come.

At least Ferrari won’t have to face up to the Tifosi this year…

 

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