Ferrari's start to 2011 has not followed the script suggested by pre-season testing so far — but after showing some potential in Malaysia can the Italian giants mount a quick recovery?
The pressure on Ferrari means question marks are already forming over the team's performance so far this year, but it's easy to see where their problems lie. Whether they can solve them, however, is a different matter.
The team's qualifying performance in the opening two races has been nothing less than a disaster. Red Bull and McLaren locked out the front two rows in Australia and Malaysia and although Alonso was the next best, in fifth place on each occasion, he was almost 1.5s off the pace in Australia and just under a second slower in Malaysia.
But while the team has been well off the pace on single lap runs, come race day it's a different story.
Massa led a Ferrari one-two in the fastest race lap tables in Australia, setting a time some 0.653s ahead of Red Bull's Mark Webber in third, 0.897s faster than the second Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel and 0.936s ahead of Button's McLaren.
In Malaysia, Webber was fastest but only by 0.146s from Alonso, with the two drivers' times set within three laps of each other. Indeed, Alonso was in a position to finish on the podium there were it not for the collision he had with Hamilton.
QUALIFYING vs RACE PACE
Ferrari have been surprised by their lack of single-lap pace, having set some good times in pre-season testing — and much of that is down to the tyres.
The Red Bull manages to get its tyres up to temperature quickly while Ferrari takes longer to get the tyres working — limiting their grip in the early sectors. McLaren, it seems, are somewhere in the middle.
This was particularly noticeable in Australia and although less clearly shown between Red Bull and McLaren in Malaysia due to the increased track temperatures it was still apparent with the Ferraris.
Ferrari's main problem is that they are lacking downforce. It is the fundamental issue because with less downforce the car cannot corner as fast, the tyres don't get worked as hard and so their temperature does not rise as quickly.
The car could visibly be seen failing to hang on to the apexes in certain higher speed corners around Sepang, whereas the McLarens and Red Bulls were able to hit more of the sweet spots.
That said, the downforce vs tyre performance issue means that in the race, the more downforce there is the more quickly the tyres degrade — so it is a delicate balance.
Ferrari boss Stefano Domenicali admitted that all the teams are still getting to grips with understanding the tyres, but in the race it seems Ferrari's car provides more consistency and can ultimately reach a higher pace in race trim.
So now they need to focus on working out how they can start further up the grid.
Recent development parts have not delivered the performance to the car that its wind tunnel figures predicted — and that has pitched Ferrari into an uncomfortable fire-fighting situation.
To try and work out their aerodynamic issues, the team analysed their performance in Melbourne and put together a test programme to run during Friday practice in Malaysia.
With their minds focused on this programme, they were forced to use much of Friday for constant speed aerodynamic tests and did not work at all on tyre evaluation and car set-up.
With limited time, a team will have to prioritise their set-up focus on qualifying or the race — and with such an apparent gulf in qualifying, it was sensible for Ferrari to work on maximising their race pace in Malaysia.
The approach clearly worked — with Alonso still managing to secure the current best-case scenario fifth place on the grid and then having the performance to compete in the race.
He was delighted to have been able to fight the two McLarens for position — and would have claimed a podium had DRS not failed, as with that fully functioning he could easily have passed Hamilton down the straight rather than having to take the risky move that resulted in a collision.
Despite some promising signs, the media pressure that is put on Ferrari in Italy means developing the car in the right direction is not the only challenge for Domenicali - one of his most important jobs is to keep control of team spirit.
Much has been made of Ferrari's 'damage limitation' mode, and when a team's car is not on the lead pace the team focus must be sharp and operations perfect to maximise every bit of potential available. If you have a car advantage, you can afford a few slip-ups, but if you don't, you cannot make mistakes if you are to capitalise on other teams' failures and grab points when they become available.
Alonso is doing his bit to keep the team upbeat, insisting: "We have to stay calm and concentrated and, in the meantime, bring home as many points as possible. The championship is very long and last year, we saw how the situation can change continuously from one race to the next."
Domenicali is excellent at keeping the team positive — even in the worst situations, like those they experienced in last season's title showdown in Abu Dhabi, and Alonso insists that the race pace they showed in Malaysia has given them a "very positive atmosphere" in the team right now.
That said, however, Ferrari is now preparing for the worst again this weekend in China.
Temperatures are forecast to be relatively low for Shanghai (around 19-22 degrees) and that could cause Ferrari even more problems in qualifying as they struggle to get tyres up to the right operating window. It could also make it easier for their rivals to manage their tyres in the race, limiting the apparent advantage Ferrari's car has over long runs.
No matter what happens in China, however, Ferrari is confident it is going in the right direction. Alonso is giving his all, and he will be well aware of the resilience the team showed last year as they turned things around to become true title contenders.
Once the pre-race fire fighting stops, the focus will be back. It's just a question of how long that will take. This season has only just begun though — so there's no need to panic at Maranello just yet.
- Red Bull