Ahead of the seventh round of the 2019 Formula One season, Ferrari is in need of a reality check.
The famous Italian team started the year as the favourite for the championship, but after six rounds it has scored just four podiums, one pole position and no victories across its two cars. With only a quarter of the season gone, there is already talk of Mercedes — which has won all six races to date in 2019 — enjoying its most dominant season yet. So what’s gone wrong?
Put simply, the car isn’t quick enough. It’s an oversimplification of a more nuanced problem, but a fundamental lack of pace in low- and medium-speed corners has forced the team into errors it shouldn’t have made. On occasion it has had the fastest car on the grid – and that could well be the case again this weekend in Canada – but it has squandered its shots at victory while trying to overcompensate when the car has been a clear second or third best.
Ferrari went into the season with the clear target of ending its decade-long championship drought, but in failing to face up to the reality of its situation in the first six rounds, it has all but fallen out of title contention.
Expectations versus reality
A look at the constructors’ championship tells you all you need to know: Ferrari trails Mercedes by 118 points and is only 29 points ahead of Red Bull (and that’s despite Red Bull’s second driver, Pierre Gasly, underperforming so far). Expectations from pre-season testing have not been met in reality and the disconnect has led to extreme pressure on Maranello. But on the basis of the opening six rounds, Ferrari is not in a battle with Mercedes for the championship but a scrap with Red Bull for second place and it needs to adjust its short and mid-term targets accordingly.
To understand why expectations were so warped compared to reality, we need to go back to pre-season testing.
In late February, hopes were ramped up as the red cars looked comfortably faster than the Mercedes in testing at the Circuit de Catalunya. But this wasn’t a case of smoke and mirrors, the Ferraris really were that much faster, it’s just that Mercedes’ car in the first week of testing was still a long way off its final concept.
Regulation changes to the front wing over the winter had initially left Mercedes flustered. The team’s aerodynamic concept was based on its ability to load up the tips of the front wing and manipulate air downstream with devices around the front wing endplates, but the simplified regulations for 2019 stripped the team of one its key strengths.
“When we first put these new regulations on, which have much less geometrical freedom [for the front wing], it haemorrhaged downforce off our car because one of our key features was totally broken,” Mercedes technical director James Allison told Sky Sports earlier this year. “When I say haemorrhaged, I mean 2.5 seconds gone! It was a big deal.
“So we started to try to understand what was broken and why, and all of the interface between the front wing endplate and the flap was irredeemably knackered — the flow structures that we had been developing had just collapsed.”
In order to hit its launch date and buy some time, Mercedes had to come up with a compromise for the first test before an overhaul of every aerodynamic surface was introduced for the second test.
“We started working on it, and we started trying to understand why the air wouldn’t go where we wanted it to any more, and we started to modify the geometry and see how we could persuade it back into order,” Allison said. “On our first version on the launch car, you can see that our front wing endplate doesn’t even point outboard, it points inboard. That’s because at the time we froze that car that was the best we could do.
“It was restoring some of the control we had previously had outboard, restoring some of the load we had previously had outboard, but we couldn’t yet expand it sideways without it falling off the wing.
“It took us a few weeks and months to learn how to do that, but once we had learned how to do that we, by and large, had managed to retain a lot of the power that we had in the tip of the front wing previously, which had been an important part of our world.”
As a result, Mercedes’ rate of development in the second week of testing was rapid. The team was finding massive performance gains each day, but it was only by the final day that it showed some of its potential with a lap time to equal Ferrari’s best. By that point, however, the narrative of testing was already set, and one lap on a Friday afternoon wasn’t enough to unpick it. Unfortunately, the reality was setting the Italian team up for a fall.
The first sign of trouble came at the opening round in Australia. Ferrari was over 0.6s off the pace in qualifying and finished fourth and fifth as Mercedes took a dominant one-two victory. Without a doubt, the circuit played to the strengths of Mercedes while exposing the weaknesses of the Ferrari, but the Italian team realised it was in trouble.
On its return to Maranello, it shifted the target date for its first engine upgrade four weeks earlier so it arrived in Spain rather than Canada. Although that wouldn’t address the car’s biggest failings in Australia directly, it was a sign of the extent of the team’s concerns from the very first round. But while Ferrari recognised the severity of the situation internally, the burden of expectation on the outside remained in line with the levels of performance it had showed in testing.
The second round in Bahrain only served to enforce the narrative from testing. The circuit’s long straights, abrasive track surface and lack of medium-speed corners played to the strengths of Ferrari. After securing pole, Charles Leclerc was on course for a memorable debut victory when a short circuit in the engine’s control electronics cut a cylinder and he lost power. Some of the vices of the SF90 were still clear to see in Vettel’s performance in Bahrain, but on the evidence of the first two races it should have been one victory each between the top two teams.
At this stage, Ferrari still looked like a championship challenger.
Fighting the wrong fight
With the evidence of the opening rounds suggesting Ferrari was still in the running, the pressure on the team to secure results continued to ratchet up. With that pressure came extra scrutiny of team orders and race strategy. The perception was that the team was falling short of the promised results because it was tripping itself up, even if the crux of the issue was that the car was simply being outdeveloped by Mercedes. Team orders in China were understandable given the situation, but the team faced a grilling after the race as Mercedes swept to a third consecutive one-two victory and it finished third and fifth.
At the next round in Baku, the car had the potential to take pole position and win the race, but Ferrari attempted to hammer home its advantage by mixing up its tyre strategy. Under F1’s regulations, drivers in the top ten must start the race on whichever tyre they use in second part of qualifying, meaning teams with a big pace advantage often use the medium compound tyre in order to start the race on more durable rubber. And so it transpired that Ferrari — confident in its pace after crushing Mercedes in final practice — bolted on the mediums as everyone else used softs in Q2.
Mercedes saw the session differently. It felt that offering the driver a consistent grip level throughout qualifying on such a tricky circuit outweighed the potential advantages of starting on the harder tyre. In many ways, that should have taken the pressure off Ferrari, and maybe convinced them not to pursue the riskier strategy of changing compound midway through qualifying, but it stuck with the mediums.
On their flying laps in Q2, both Ferrari drivers made mistakes at the tricky Turn 8, with Leclerc ending up in the wall and ruling him out of the session on the spot. Vettel survived with just a scare, but switched back to softs to make the cut for Q3 — meaning there would be no tyre advantage come Sunday anyway. Vettel then failed to get an all-important slipstream on his final qualifying lap in Q3, partly because he didn’t have Leclerc alongside him in the session, costing him crucial tenths of a second to both Mercedes drivers and resulting in a third place starting position behind an all-silver front row.
Ultimately, it was Leclerc’s mistake that cost the team in Baku, but the tyre switch — aimed at giving Ferrari a better chance of beating Mercedes — was an unnecessary overstretch that contributed to the accident. A perfect weekend in Baku could have yielded 43 points and a one-two victory, instead Ferrari came away with 26 in third and fifth as Mercedes took its fourth one-two of the season.
Qualifying in Monaco was another example of a Ferrari overstretch. It had five sets of fresh soft tyres per car for the three sessions of qualifying (Q1, Q2 and Q3) and hoped to save two fresh sets for Q2 and two fresh sets for Q3. That would give Vettel and Leclerc the best shot at challenging Mercedes for pole position, but also meant there was no room for error in Q1.
So when Leclerc damaged a set of tyres by locking up on his first attempt, the team had to decide whether to sacrifice another set of tyres by sending him back out to improve or gamble on his first attempt being enough to progress without another lap. From the outside Leclerc’s time looked marginal, but Ferrari’s data from practice said he was safe and it decided to keep him in the garage and save the rubber. Leclerc questioned that decision, believing he needed to set a faster time to make the cut, but was overruled.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Leclerc was right; he failed to progress to Q2, leaving him with four sets of fresh soft tyres but no sessions to use them in. He started 15th on the grid, tried to make up positions on the tightest track of the year and lasted 10 laps before he collided with the wall while trying to pass Nico Hulkenberg. At the very least, 10 points should have been on offer in Monaco for finishing fifth. Instead he got zero.
Speaking after the Monaco mistake, team principal Mattia Binotto said: “We may argue that as Ferrari, it’s a mistake that should not happen. But as Ferrari, we are facing a situation where we need to catch up points in the championship, we need to catch up compared to our competitors, and when you need to catch up you need to take some risks as well.”
Meanwhile, Red Bull — or at least Max Verstappen — has finished in the top four at all six races. That means he has taken points off at least one of the Ferrari drivers at every race this year. The Red Bull is a capable car, but even by the team’s admission it was not performing as it should at the opening few rounds and was clearly third best. And yet, with Ferrari focused firmly on fighting a losing battle with Mercedes, it has left itself exposed to Red Bull and lost points as a result.
Can Ferrari turn its season around?
Ferrari’s main focus has now turned to addressing the car’s weaknesses. The Spanish and Monaco Grands Prix laid those weaknesses bare, with the SF90 struggling in low- and medium-speed corners at both circuits. In high-speed corners the car is a match for the Mercedes and it is capable of making up 0.3s to 0.5s of lap time on the straights depending on the track layout. But by the very nature of low-speed corners, they are the costliest part of a circuit to lose performance as the car spends a relatively long amount of lap time in them.
The most dramatic illustration of the issue came in Monaco and the comparison between Sebastian Vettel’s Q3 lap and the best lap time set by Kevin Magnussen in the Haas. Magnussen’s lap was one of the best of his career – enough to claim sixth on the grid in the absence of Leclerc – and was only 0.162s off Vettel’s. However, what was alarming was that the GPS traces of the two cars showed Magnussen gained time on Vettel in every corner bar the relatively high-speed Turn 1 and Swimming Pool section. Vettel made it up the lost time — and more — on the short straights, but the Haas, which shares many mechanical components with the Ferrari, was superior in the vast majority of corners.
As with everything in F1, the lack of performance is not down to one single factor. Ferrari’s whole car concept this year prioritises aero efficiency over peak downforce – a concept that would usually be preferable but one that has opened up a weakness in the way the car uses its tyres. Changes to the thickness of the tread of Pirelli’s tyres this year means they do not retain heat in the same way as last year. An inability to generate enough load in the tyres at low speeds can result in the rubber failing to get up to temperature and that in turn results in a downward spiral in performance.
With any regulation change, all teams are blind to what their rivals are doing ahead of pre-season testing and Ferrari, it seems, underestimated what the tyres needed in terms of load in low-speed corners. Once the car is over a certain speed, it generates downforce to keep it nicely planted in high-speed corners, but in the low-speed stuff it struggles. Mercedes, meanwhile, has hit the sweetspot of the new tyres.
“The tyres this season are quite different to the ones of last year,” Binotto said in Monaco. “There’s no blame [on Pirelli], it’s only a matter of fact. The main difference is that last year we all had very good warm-up on the tyres, and we were all focused and concentrated on cooling the tyres as much as we can to keep them working because the lower the temps, the better the grip.
“The tyres of this season are quite different in this respect. Warm-up is a lot more difficult, and also the window — temperature targets — to get the best grip from the tyres itself — to achieve it you need to heat up the tyres. So instead of cooling them down you need to heat them up.
“How can you achieve that? Certainly you can achieve that through braking temperatures, rims cooling but overall it’s downforce. No doubt. Certainly no doubt the downforce has absolute value but it is also how you balance the downforce high speed to low speed. It may be as well, let me say, how you may even target your aero development efficiency versus maximum downforce itself.”
In simple terms, a car’s aerodynamics are based on a trade-off between downforce and drag. Increasing downforce helps in the corners, reducing drag helps on the straights, so ideally you want efficient downforce that smothers the car in the corners while offering minimum drag on the straights. In order to address its weaknesses, Binotto said the team is looking at new concepts aimed at increasing absolute downforce, even if it comes at the cost of extra drag.
“I think we’ve got a car that’s quite efficient, you can see it on the straight,” he added. “But it doesn’t mean we’ve got the car that’s got the highest downforce in the pitlane. Sometimes, when in discussing targets, it means that we need some more in terms of final concept, are you better looking for maximum downforce or efficiency? No doubt it is depending on how the tyres are working and what is required, and so overall it’s an interaction between the aero itself, suspension no doubt, because how you balance your aero through the corner, and overall it’s the full package.
“So, we’ve got a car that is overall efficient, but lacking in some certainly peak of downforce. That’s what we call concepts. So while we are developing our car step by step, now I think it’s time to question ourselves if we need to look for different overall targets how to achieve the final performance.”
A win at the upcoming Canadian Grand Prix would be hugely valuable for Ferrari’s morale, and the long straights of the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve should play to the SF90’s straight-line speed advantage. But there will still be concerns about the slow speed sections and Montreal’s smooth track surface, which won’t help Ferrari’s pursuit of tyre temperature. The team is not bringing any major updates to Montreal, so it will have to rely on the package it already has to combat a Mercedes that is very good in slow-speed corners and is expected to have a significant engine upgrade in Montreal.
A raft of updates based on Ferrari’s failings and findings in Spain is due for France, which is likely to be an important litmus test for the team. Generate the front tyre temperature that has been lacking and the SF90 will become a credible threat at the majority of circuits, but continue to struggle and Mercedes is likely to extend its advantage with upgrades of its own. Either way, Ferrari needs a significant step as well as some errors on Mercedes’ side to emerge as genuine championship challenger in the second half of the year.