Let’s face it, if you’ve been a Ferrari fan for the past few seasons, you would quite possibly describe it as a limping horse rather than anything remotely prancing. Or just plain dismal in fact.
Like Mercedes, you were pinning your hopes on those big regulation changes to finally get back to the front. You had dreams of getting back to the early 2000s, with the success that Michael Schumacher and company gave in return for loyalty and support. Unfortunately, and very much unlike Mercedes, since 2014 for Ferrari just hasn’t got off the line. Lacking in the engine department and overall car development compared to their rivals as well as curious staff recruitment, only three wins, compared to the German giant’s near 50 win haul, is a meagre return for millions in investment.
For Ferrari, it seems history has gone full circle – and it’s taken 18 years . Welcome, therefore, to 1992, a truly dismal season designed to test even the most devoted Ferrari fan.
After an unsuccessful title challenge in 1990 and a mediocre 1991 season, Alain Prost was ceremoniously dumped by the Italian squad for openly criticising the car’s performance. The 1991 machinery, dubbed the 643, was not a match for either Williams or McLaren – and that was when it was working, with reliability being a continuing issue. Both Prost and Jean Alesi would inspire with heart-in-your-mouth banzai efforts, but cruel luck would always seemingly interfere when a good result looked within reach.
Heading into 1992, and with its rivals further developing their radical solutions like active suspension and traction control, Ferrari had to get radical itself if they wanted to get back to winning ways. Ivan Capelli joined from Leyton House to partner Alesi – the Italian had shown flashes of brilliance and an Italian driver at Ferrari would always be a salivating prospect for the adoring Tifosi.
Designers Jean-Claude Migeot and Steve Nichols were retained from 1991, with the latter having the hugely successful McLaren MP4/4 of 1988 on his CV. To get the revolution started, this design team were about to attempt an approach in underfloor aerodynamics that had not been seen since the ground effect era of the early 1980s.
The F92A was an all-new car from Ferrari; a car which featured a distinct floor design what was dubbed the “double floor”. The sidepods and rear of the car were effectively raised up and the floor was then suspended, producing a gap. The idea being to remove the influence of the bulky sidepods by allowing the airflow to bypass them and go straight into the large downforce-producing rear diffuser via the gap. It was also hoped that the double-floor arrangement would aid in downforce production like the ground effect cars of the past had done, except without the skirts and without breaking the flat bottomed car requirement in the regulations.
While this should have been a moment for optimism and intrigue, things behind the scenes were already simmering over. The car didn’t arrive on the pre-season testing scene until two weeks before the first race in Kyalami where Nichols was no longer with the team, with rumours of differing working opinions being a factor.
Qualifying for Kyalami wasn’t too bad on paper; Alesi was 5th and Capelli was 9th. But the time differences to Nigel Mansell’s Williams on pole? 1.7 seconds and an eye-watering 2.9 seconds respectively set the tone. The race was even worse with both drivers retiring with a combination of engine and oil problems. Their number of laps combined didn’t even make up the race distance.
The next round at Mexico was even more of an embarrassment. 10th for Alesi was bad enough, but Capelli was in a binoculars-requiring 20th place, nearly four seconds down on the Williams on pole. In the race Capelli was swiftly removed from the action at the start after colliding with the March of Karl Wendlinger, while Alesi trundled along before retiring with engine failure on lap 31. Trundling being the word – the Ferrari was so slow in a straight line that the entire field was breezing past him down the main straight.
Brazil saw their first points of the season with a 5th and 6th place finishes, and Spain even saw Alesi get a podium finish, but at the start of the season, these small gains would have been seen as a bare minimum for where they were aiming. By San Marino, their first home race of the season, neither Ferrari again finished and Capelli was starting to look out of his depth after spinning off. They had amassed 9 points. Championship leaders Williams had 74.
Capelli was already under close scrutiny. Gianni Morbidelli had been touted for his seat by certain areas of the press, due to doing the majority of the recent testing, forcing Ferrari to issue a statement that Capelli’s seat was safe. Updates were added to the car for Monaco but neither driver again finished. Capelli was on for a solid 5th and looking to appease his doubters, before famously wedging his Ferrari between the barriers at Rascasse.
The odd moment of flattery from Jean Alesi aside, by the halfway stage Ferrari’s F92A gamble had already proven to be more of an Edsel than a Williams-beater. In fact Ferrari were looking at their worst season for more than a decade. Williams were leading the constructors with 100 points. Ferrari were 4th with a meagre 13.
The F92A was simply too heavy, too slow, and by this stage of the season, too under-developed. With the gap needing to be made for the double-floor design to work, just creating that gap had caused the car to be compromised in many key areas. The sidepods were far too bulky compared to the previous 643, and all the weight shifting upwards meant the car had a higher centre of gravity, causing it to roll through the corners and generally making it extremely difficult to drive. The gearbox and large parts of the V12 engine had to be redesigned to make space for the double-floor, increasing weight further.
Belgium was the low point. Capelli couldn’t even out-qualify the Fondmetal of Gabriele Tarquini, qualifying over five seconds off pole position. Even Alesi was over three seconds from pole. After Belgium though was Monza, and Ferrari went all out for their second home race of the season.
The new F92AT was debuted – the T standing for a new transversal gearbox. This, plus a new floor and various engine updates saw a minor miracle of Alesi qualifying a dizzying 3rd and Capelli in 7th. However that’s as good as it got; Alesi retired with fuel problems after 13 laps and Capelli, yet again, spun off.
From there on the end of the season couldn’t come quickly enough. Nicola Larini was drafted in to replace Capelli for the last two races, but his car was severely hampered by test components that were thought to make the car around 30kg overweight compared to that of Alesi.
With the famous Mansell/Senna collision at the final round at Adelaide grabbing all the limelight, Ferrari quietly packed up in the background, wanting to forget the season as quickly as possible. With just 21 points to their name, it was the worst season for Maranello since 1980. Team-based political conflicts, a lack of leadership and a generally under-developed car were all highlighted as probable causes for such a dismal showing.
To their credit, Ferrari didn’t wallow in defeat. Now legendary technical designer John Barnard was hired by the end of 1992 and by mid-1993 Jean Todt was prised away from a hugely successful spell at Peugeot motorsport to head up the race team. Race wins and pole positions soon followed in 1994, by which time the F92A debacle was but a footnote in Maranello history.
This slice of Ferrari history highlights something important for any Ferrari fan; the importance of keeping the faith. If you’ve come full circle now, surely winning ways will return in no time at all, especially with the presence of certain German driver.
It’s starting to all sound a bit familiar, isn’t it?