Op-Ed: Ferrari, Mercedes need big showings in Valencia or … time to focus on 2011

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This is the make-or-break weekend for both Ferrari and Mercedes this season, although for decidedly different reasons.

I say that despite — heck, even because — Ferrari has gone out of its way to proclaim the season far from finished:

The fact the team was disappointed with Alonso “only” managing to finish third in Canada, after the run of play with backmarkers went against him, shows that within Ferrari the feeling is that the championship is still very open. By the way, after the race in Valencia there will be still ten races to go ….

True enough. But for Ferrari and Mercedes, after this weekend, without far better performances than they’ve shown recently, the season may as well be going into its final weekend.

First up, Mercedes, which more clearly is up against the ropes. McLaren is just one point shy of owning double Mercedes constructors points, 215 to 108. Unless Mercedes walks out of Valencia with at least 25 points — or a third and a fifth, at the minimum — they simply will be too far behind to catch up. And I don’t mean mathematically or any of that jazz, I mean if the car — and one of its drivers — still is not competitive by the checkered flag on Sunday, I just don’t believe it is going to happen soon enough and “enough” enough to bring the team back into the title picture.

I certainly wouldn’t advocate that the team publicly announce it has abandoned 2010. I think fans’ interest in Michael Schumacher will drop significantly if they don’t believe he is in a competitive car or one that might get competitive. But the team will need to begin heavily managing its own expectations, find ways to throw positive developments on the 2010 car that really have more meaning for 2011 and hold off Renault. A fifth-place finish in the constructors championship is 100% unacceptable, even for a first season, given the combo of Ross Brawn, Schumacher, Nico Rosberg and the Mercedes logo.

And then there is Ferrari. The Maranello outfit is far from out of the running of either title hunt. The team has 161 points to Merceces 215 and Red Bull’s 193. Fernando Alonso — driving this weekend at his bonus “home” race — is in fourth place with 94 points. He trails the leader, Lewis Hamilton, by just 15 points. A win or even a podium, if Hamilton really crashed and burned and Jenson Button and Mark Webber finished back far enough, could vault Alonso back to the front.

And it could happen. The team is touting its upgrades, after all:

The most significant feature is a new configuration for the exhaust system, aimed at improving the aerodynamic efficiency of the car. There will also be additional aero updates to the rear end of the car. However, these changes are just the first in a series of improvements to the F10 which will roll out over what is a very busy part of the season, with four races coming in the space of the next five weeks preceding the summer break.

But if it doesn’t happen? If Alonso finishes off the podium — or even further back — and Felipe Massa joins him in a bad showing, it will hang a giant question mark above the team’s updates. In other words, if the car with these updates isn’t competitive, we can figure that Ferrari went the wrong way on its development. And even more roll-outs over the next month, if it is building on a big misstep, is not going to cut it.

Yes, Alonso is in the hunt right now. But if he doesn’t repeat his Canadian performance and get on the podium this weekend, he might find himself 30 or more points behind the leader in a car that is not competitive enough to win. And if Massa doesn’t manage a top five finish, I think the team can begin kissing the constructors title a firm farewell.

My prediction? I will give Maranello the benefit of the doubt and say that the upgrades will make the car more competitive, keeping the team in the hunt. I hope for Massa’s sake that he manages to slot in close to Alonso and close to that top 5.

But Mercedes? I think the story will be different. At this point, I believe there are six cars clearly faster than Mercedes (McLaren, Red Bull and Ferrari). The team rightly should be more worried about Renault and even Force India pulling alongside. And this track could play well for both of those teams, plus there are several more tracks — Spa, Monza — that we know will be strong for Force India left on the calendar.

Mercedes, I fear, will leave Valencia needing to focus on 2011. And while Ferrari will still be in the picture, I think we are nearing the moment when it, too, will have to cut its 2010 losses.

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