Charles Leclerc has already lost the drivers championship, and short of a dramatic reversal of form, Red Bull Racing will beat Ferrari to the constructors title at this weekend’s United States Grand Prix.
Ferrari needs to outscore Red Bull Racing by 19 points — the difference between a Ferrari one-two and neither RBR driver finishing on the podium — just to take the fight to Mexico, the third-last round, where defeat will be virtually inevitable anyway.
But these last four rounds are nonetheless crucial for Ferrari.
First there’s the matter of maintenance of pride. The team is only 67 points ahead of Mercedes in the battle for third in the standings. Finishing behind the German marque, which has struggled to fully understand its car for much of the season, would be an immense disappointment considering the Italian team’s strong start to the campaign, even if its progress from the difficulties of the last two years has nonetheless been significant.
Leclerc has also slipped to third in the drivers standings one point behind Sergio Perez. RBR has fielded the faster car in the second half of the year, but it’s an indictment on team and driver that Leclerc’s supreme qualifying record this year hasn’t translated into a points advantage.
But then there’s the bigger picture of 2024 and the critical importance that the team takes the opportunity to hone its craft while the pressure’s off so it can hit the ground running next season.
After unreliability, execution has been Ferrari and Leclerc’s biggest downfall this year, costing enough points to just about decide the title on their own.
Operationally Ferrari just hasn’t been sharp enough to compete with the battle-hardened Red Bull Racing. There’s no substitute for practice when it comes to race operation, and while four rounds won’t revolutionise how the Italian team works, they’ll be invaluable to refine existing processes and establish new and more effective ones.
“That's the goal,” Leclerc said. “We need to use those last races in order to become a better team and hopefully put him a bit more of a challenge next year.”
Will this weekend’s race give the team a chance to be bold? It may have to be if it wants a chance to win. The forecast is for an ambient temperature in the low 30°C range, and on a track that’s already punishing for tyres and with a car with a record of high tyre wear, Ferrari will need to pull out all stops to be competitive in Austin.
There are reasons to think any of the top three teams could be competitive this weekend, but the high ambient temperature is a potential weakness for Ferrari, while the unknown over the severity of the bumps means Mercedes may run into trouble, leaving Red Bull Racing as the clear favourite.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author. Quotes have been obtained from team press conferences and issued press releases.