Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel face defining season in bid to end Mercedes domination

Covers came off the car on Tuesday as the Italian team aims for a first constructors title since 2008 - but their former world champion driver is under pressure

This photo taken and handout by the Ferrari Press Office on February 11, 2020 shows the new Ferrari Formula One SF1000 during its unveiling ceremony at Teatro Romolo-Valli in Reggio Emilia. RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO / FERRARI PRESS OFFICE" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

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Ferrari themselves have described the looming season as “critical”. Caught between the end of one era and the looming dawn of a new Liberty age.

Rarely have the sport’s biggest name gone into a season with so much on the line as they did at Tuesday’s launch 30 miles outside Maranello in the magnificent neoclassic opera house setting of the Teatro Valli.

Conventional wisdom has it the longer the rules stay the same the better, and closer, the competition. After six years of merciless Mercedes domination surely Ferrari are finally on their heels?

But if they can’t win when they are fighting one campaign – how will they manage when they are battling across two: both for this year’s title and the advance work needed to be successful when the radical changes come into force in 2021. And with, in their case, their budget potentially halved to $175 million (Dh643m) budget.

Much remained in flux at the sport’s most flamboyant operation as the covers came off the new race machine a week ahead of the first test in Barcelona and the first race in March.

Sebastian Vettel batted off questions in his usual casual fashion but cannot doubt his career is on the line: not only for being outgunned by his relatively rookie teammate Charles Leclerc last year by a string of his own mistakes, notably the crash while leading in Germany and then colliding into his own teammate in Brazil.

The German is not only playing for personal success but his very legacy. Outdone by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull, he faces another ignominious chapter at the hands of a younger man again – his very speed called into question.

His initial mission to save Ferrari as his hero Michael Schumacher had done has turned into a battle for self-survival.

Not so many years ago this was an era that looked to have his name on it, following greats like Schumacher, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost. Instead he has been cast into the shadows by Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen.

And what happens if Ferrari find themselves leading the pack after five races with two drivers in the hunt? They have always had a one-car strategy: will they back the rising rookie or go with the discredited champion? Compromise their future or their present?

Then there is a race management team who need to deliver after an error-strewn 2019.

Mattia Binotto - elevated from the technical side of the operation - knows his chances of being the fourth team boss to be ejected in six years will escalate dramatically if this season is the same as the last.

Ferrari have not won a constructors championship since 2008 nor a driver’s title since the year before.

For the richest team with the biggest budget (over $350m) and access to the best drivers and engineers, that is almost inexcusable.

Those standing on the stage on Tuesday were well aware that this year, more than any other, a fast start in Melbourne in a month’s time is vital.

They can’t afford to repeat 2019 when it took them until the speed tracks in the second half of the season at Spa and Monza to get off the mark.

With the wholescale rule changes in 2021, thoughts – and resources – will increasingly turn to the future before then.

If Maranello can get a jump on Mercedes in the opening handful of ‘flyaway’ races it is anybody’s game.

But the dark rumours from within Maranello are that they have gone for a high rake Red Bull style design on the new car and the wind tunnel figures are not encouraging

As always Ferrari will appear blistering fast in the pre-season Cold War of testing to earn points so the real truth will not be known until the first race at Melbourne on March 15.

But at Tuesday’s opera house launch no one can have been in any doubt that it won’t be more than five of six races before the fat lady has done with her vocal exercises and bursts into song.

Will it be for a glorious new chapter at Ferrari or bringing down the curtain on more defeat – and a number of high profile careers?