The biggest shock from the opening race of the 2019 season was how much Ferrari struggled relative to Mercedes. Pre-season testing had led us to believe that the SF90 was the class of the field over both qualifying laps and long runs, but at Albert Park that clearly wasn’t the case.
Ferrari entered the Australian Grand Prix as the preseason favourite but leaves Melbourne after a baffling loss of pace and an early decision to implement team orders on its drivers.
The first race of the Formula One season is notorious for offering up more questions than answers, and Sunday’s Australian Grand Prix was no exception. We take a look at the main talking points from a surprising weekend.
Sebastian Vettel was 0.7s off the lead Mercedes in qualifying before falling a whopping 57 seconds off race winner Valtteri Bottas over 58 laps on Sunday. The predictable and responsive handling of the Ferrari during testing was a distant memory for Vettel and teammate Charles Leclerc, who both struggled to get the car to respond positively to their inputs. So where did all that pre-season pace go?
“I think overall we were very strong, one of the strongest for sure, in Barcelona,” Vettel said after the race. “How strong? We will never have an answer. But that isn’t relevant. What is relevant is that the feel that we had in Barcelona wasn’t here this weekend.
“So it wasn’t like it was a perfect weekend on our side and as if the car felt great, we were just slow. We know that we have a lot more potential to unleash.”
A closer look at data supplied by Formula One shows that, relative to Mercedes, most of Ferrari’s lap time went missing in medium-speed corners and on the straights. For the purposes of this comparison, medium-speed corners are those taken between 125km/h and 175km/h and they make up the majority of the corners at Albert Park. What’s more, and in contrast to Barcelona, medium speed corners lead on to five of Melbourne’s six straights, meaning a poor exit results in lost time all the way until the next braking zone.
Compared to Mercedes, Ferrari was losing roughly 0.25s per lap in the medium speed corners, nearly 0.4s on the straights, but only a very marginal amount in high-speed corners. The stark contrast between the performance of the Ferrari in medium-speed and high-speed helps compartmentalise the source of the car’s problems and also hints that the fundamental qualities that made the car quick at the Circuit de Catalunya are still there
“We’ll analyse certainly compared to the other cars what were the main limitations,” team principal Mattia Binotto said on Sunday night. “I think generally speaking we did not have the grip we were expecting, and we didn’t have the right balance. And when you are in such a position, your car is not well balanced in the corner and you are not exiting [the corners] as properly as you should.”
Aside from the types of the corners, the other big difference between testing and the first race was the track surface. The Circuit de Catalunya was re-laid ahead of 2018 pre-season testing, meaning it is still very smooth and, after a year of bedding in, has a relatively high-grip surface. The track at Albert Park is used as a public road for most of the year and as a result it is bumpy, relatively low-grip and starts the weekend with no racing rubber laid down.
“Conditions here are certainly different to Barcelona, it’s more bumpy and quite a lot windier as well, different temperature and weather conditions,” Binotto added. “So there are certainly external factors that may have influenced the performance of our car.
“But we didn’t find the right [tyre operating] window or the right balance on the car. As I said, it’s not fully understood yet. Something that we need to try and understand. One thing that we are certain of today and this weekend is that it is not the real potential of our car. We are pretty sure that the potential is certainly bigger, and we have not been able to exploit it through the weekend.”
The car’s poor balance not only resulted in a loss of cornering speed, but also had a negative impact on Vettel’s ability to manage his tyres. In the race, Ferrari was aggressive with its strategy, pitting Vettel on lap 14 to switch from the soft compound tyre to the medium. In part it was an attempt to undercut Lewis Hamilton for second place, but it was also about defending from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen trying the same thing on Vettel.
The strategy was made possible by the decision of a number of midfield runners to pit early, triggered by Kimi Raikkonen’s Alfa Romeo changing to medium tyres on lap 12, which created a gap in the traffic for Vettel to slot in to without losing time. The bold move initially paid off, with Vettel setting a quick out lap that forced Hamilton to pit for his own new set of tyres on lap 15, but the promise of improved pace quickly faded as tyre degradation took hold.
So bad was the loss of performance from the medium compound tyres, that Ferrari fitted a set of hards to Leclerc when he made his pit stop 14 laps later. Clearly Leclerc’s strategy was the faster of the two as he was able to push harder on the more durable rubber in his second stint and quickly closed in on his teammate. However, Vettel believes his poor race pace extended beyond his strategy and was rooted in the more fundamental issues facing the balance of his Ferrari over the weekend.
“To be honest the whole stint, the whole second stint, on the medium tyres wasn’t very strong and I’m not sure why,” he said. “The first stint I was fairly happy — maybe it’s the opposite to Charles — but the second stint I was not. At this point I’m not sure why but I’m sure there’s a reason — clearly there was something going on.
“I didn’t have the same trust and feel in the car that I had in the first stint so I was struggling with overall pace throughout the second stint and obviously at the end I was struggling really with tyres.
“So, arguably yes, we were a little bit early in the box, but on the other hand there were people stopping at the same time that didn’t struggle that much in the end. So I don’t think it was the strategy to blame, really.”
The Bahrain Grand Prix next weekend sees Formula One return to a permanent circuit. The track surface is much more abrasive than Melbourne and has none of the bumps that seemed to unsettle the SF90 at Albert Park. In place of the problematic medium-speed corners that caught Ferrari out at Albert Park, most of the straights are preceded by low speed corners that place an emphasis on traction over maintaining apex speed. The Bahrain International Circuit still has a number of key differences compared to Barcelona, but if our theories about Ferrari’s struggles in Australia are correct it should suit the SF90 far better than Albert Park.
That’s not to say Ferrari should not be worried about its Australia performance — similar track conditions exist at a number of other street circuits on the calendar — but the performance in Bahrain should act as a much better barometer for how its season will pan out.