Legendary Formula 1 designer Rory Byrne’s return to Ferrari had been kept low profile for months, but his presence alongside Jock Clear at the Autosport Awards showed he is very much part of the family now. The 72-year-old – who was chief designer during the dominant Michael Schumacher era – is now dividing his time between Ferrari and Thailand, where he has devoted himself to his passion of underwater fishing.
Having been recalled in a consultancy role earlier this year, Byrne has been working closely with Simone Resta on Ferrari’s 2017 car – codenamed the 688 – on what sources say are the development of concepts that go to the limit of regulatory interpretations.
It is an aggressive approach that Ferrari has not been so keen to pursue in recent years, whereas rivals like Red Bull and Mercedes have always been keen to push things to the limit of the rules in their quest for success.
One example is the way Mercedes incorporated hydraulic front suspension through exploiting regulations that were intended to help Manor run a year-old car in 2015.
But with new regulations coming next year – which are expected to deliver a laptime improvement of five seconds – there is talk that technical director Mattia Binotto’s efforts are paying off.
At the Ferrari Mondiali in Daytona last weekend, team principal Maurizio Arrivabene said: “Our 2017 began last August with a major change on the technical front.
“People expect a lot from Ferrari, wins and success, therefore we will do our utmost to achieve that. But ever since the new structure was put in place, with a great engineer like Mattia Binotto in charge, we have seen positive signs, as in Japan and Abu Dhabi.”
But how is it conceivable that a team that did not win a single race in 2016 – after three victories and runner-up in the constructors’ championship the year before – can hope to become competitive without much recruitment from outside and having lost a key strength in James Allison.
The answer comes from president Sergio Marchionne: “We have reorganised the management in August, and I have every confidence in the work of Mattia Binotto. The structure I believe is now very good – although some change is always possible. But the key building blocks are in place.”
The restructuring that is talked about involves 14 separate working groups, and a more horizontal structure that allows more input from more staff. Marchionne has laid down some ambitious targets, as he is determined for Ferrari to make the most of the opportunity given by new regulations.
In Maranello there is said to be some optimism about progress, because the car that is emerging is in line with expectations. However, that does not mean that Ferrari is definitely on course to produce a race-winning car – as that will depend on what Mercedes and Red Bull do – but it means the numbers from the simulators and windtunnel are encouraging.
Inside the racing department, there is understood to be a feeling that the team ‘must’ get back on top, and a quiet confidence it is working towards that target. But can Ferrari under Binotto really churn out ideas that will be necessary to challenge Mercedes and Red Bull?
We will only know for sure during the first winter tests when the cars are unleashed in Barcelona, but there are already whispers that Ferrari – under Byrne’s watchful eye – has found solutions that come from clever interpretation of the rules.
If true, it means the new Ferrari should have a more aggressive approach to its 2017 design than we saw with the SF16-H.
And was there a hidden motive behind the decision by Ferrari to challenge the FIA over the Mexico penalty for Sebastian Vettel? Was it trying to find out how far it can go in pushing the regulations and how the governing body would respond to a challenge – ahead of some interpretations that may raise the eyebrows of rival engineers on its new car?