When Charles Leclerc mounted the second step of the podium in Austria last year he stewed at the perceived injustice of Max Verstappen’s robust race-winning move, having come three laps from a maiden victory. Leclerc’s result 12 months on at the same venue was identical: the second-placed trophy, 18 points, and a glug of champagne. But the reaction was very different, a beaming Leclerc describing it as akin to a victory, and labelling his performance as among the best of his career. He wasn’t wrong in his summation and that it took an inch-perfect drive to regard second as a shock result highlighted the mire Ferrari has found itself in at this early stage of the delayed 2020 campaign.
Back in February…
There were warning signs during pre-season testing. After its extravagant launch at the Romolo Valli Theatre in Reggio Emilia – which featured an orchestra, a choir and ballet dancers – there was little to back up the hype. Ferrari appeared very much third-best, behind the excellent Mercedes and hopeful Red Bull, its drivers were not overwhelmingly buoyant, while engineer turned team boss Mattia Binotto was vocal in playing down expectations. “We’re not playing games, this is our true performance at the moment,” said Binotto, who ranked Ferrari’s showing as “lower than six out of 10.” Binotto went on to comment that “I don’t think we’ll be in a position to win in Australia.” Vettel concurred and provided more insight. “We are slower and still have some work to do on the straights as we are a bit draggy but we are aware of that and as we’ve said the objective was to put more downforce on the car.” The question was whether the trade-off – effectively sacrificing straight-line speed for improved aerodynamic capability – had been met and, if not, how large its disadvantage would be. Ferrari took nine pole positions last year but converted that into just three narrow victories as it sought a remedy to its vastly inferior race pace. But as testing wore on the worsening coronavirus pandemic, at that point particularly in Italy, meant attention switched elsewhere, as the Formula 1 season shuddered to a halt in Australia before it even began.
Post-pandemic, a public hands-up
Team factories went into a prolonged shutdown period but Formula 1 engineers do not switch off. Ferrari assessed its testing performance and realised that it was firmly on the backfoot. It announced that it had significantly altered its aerodynamic development strategy and that the updates would not be ready until the Hungarian Grand Prix, leaving the SF1000 in the same specification – chassis and engine – as in pre-season testing for the two events in Austria.
“The car in winter testing was not performing as expected,” confirmed Binotto. “The car on track was not performing as the design we did at home so there was a mis-correlation from design to track. Obviously we had to understand at first. We started really trying to understand it as soon as we have been back at the factory, so during the shutdown period that was not possible. I think we realised that from the aero point of view mainly there were some mis-correlations. Eventually I think we pushed our project on trying to seek a lot of downforce, that’s looking as well what was our situation last year in terms of weaknesses. I think whatever we developed was too fragile in terms of aero robustness when being back on track and what we are trying to do now is to have a step back and try to understand and reassess the problem and then moving forwards later on.” It was an open acceptance that the early rounds were going to be a case in damage limitation.
The Vettel factor
In handing Leclerc a new and improved five-year deal in December it firmly outlined where Ferrari felt its future hopes rested, and it was not with Vettel. But back in February Ferrari publicly outlined Vettel was its number one choice and thus when it was announced in May that the parties were to split it hinted at a mutual separation. Only when Formula 1 reconvened on Thursday Vettel sought to outline his stance, revealing that he was never offered a contract, and was surprised when he received the news in a call from Binotto. The next day, when the comments were put to Binotto, he confirmed the story, and that the fall-out from the pandemic – such as the reduced budget cap and regulation freeze – prompted a re-think in Ferrari’s strategy. Even accounting for Vettel’s more recent driving faults it did not come across as respectful treatment of a four-time World Champion, and one whom has largely resolutely defended Ferrari since his arrival in 2015, playing the team game and not throwing its performances under the proverbial bus. It does not augur well for a harmonious situation of everyone pulling 100 per cent in the same direction through the rest of 2020. “Sebastian has appeared surprised and shocked by what has happened and it must be a distraction, understandably so,” said Formula 1 chief Ross Brawn on the situation.
On-track strife realised
How bad would it be on track? FP1 wasn’t great, FP2 similarly subdued, while FP3 didn’t provide much encouragement either. Vettel suggested Ferrari was lacking in all areas and that the draggy nature of the SF1000 was accentuating its prospects even further. Would it even stave off the midfield contingent, led by the ‘pink Mercedes’ and the ever-improving McLaren? The question was firmly answered when Vettel failed to progress from Q2 on pure pace alone. Leclerc scraped through in 10th and then went on to muster seventh at a circuit where he excels. Leclerc took pole position in one-make junior categories by sizeable margins in Austria (half a second in GP3, three-tenths in Formula 2) and thrived in 2019, cruising to a comfortable pole position. It was a humiliating display for Ferrari; Leclerc was 0.920s slower than 12 months ago while his best effort was 0.987s away from Valtteri Bottas’ Q3 best – and the Finn felt he had a tenth or two in hand when he went off on his final push lap. Relative to Mercedes it lost 1.3s year-on-year at a circuit that has the shortest lap time of any on the calendar at just 63 seconds. One factor that did not go unnoticed was the relative speed of this year’s cars. Of the four teams to lose time in qualifying three of them were powered by Ferrari engines. Haas was six-tenths slower, Ferrari nine-tenths, and Alfa Romeo 1.1s. Ferrari’s engine performance in 2019 had raised suspicion from rivals and tensions were raised further when it was announced, 10 minutes before the end of pre-season testing, that a private settlement had been reached with the FIA. Ferrari has steadfastly maintained its innocence throughout the period but rivals have had doubts and have called on the marque to release details of the settlement. Binotto rejected such claims, pointing to the protection of intellectual property, but it has only served to reinforce privately-held views.
Super Charles, spinning Seb
Would Ferrari put in a charge in race trim to confound its critics? There was little of the sort. Its shock podium owed much to the brilliant Leclerc and the drama elsewhere. Leclerc made few gains against Lando Norris and Sergio Perez early on, as the Mercedes duo and Max Verstappen streaked clear, and at the restart had to be on the defensive merely to protect sixth against Carlos Sainz Jr. Ferrari’s straight-line speed deficit was clear to see as Leclerc struggled to get close to even attempt a move. When Norris got out of shape trying to size up Perez Leclerc pounced, but even then only had just enough speed to make a move stick around Turn 4. His approach on Perez was perfectly judged and may go down as one of the manoeuvres of the season. Even as he passed the 150m board he was some way back yet he committed, closed the deficit, and executed the pass without barging into his rival. It was a shock podium but the reality still exists.
“No, unfortunately not,” said Leclerc on whether Ferrari’s race pace was stronger than in qualifying. “We are quick around the corners but we struggle, so we will have a new package in Hungary to try to fix a little bit more this issue.”
Vettel was all at sea in the sister car, which judging by the brief onboards shown was handling horribly, providing its driver with little confidence. “I’m glad I only spun once,” said Vettel after his clumsy mishap with Carlos Sainz Jr, ironically the man chosen by Ferrari as his successor. In previous years a Ferrari driver would be expected to carve back into the top six but Vettel struggled to pick up just one point in an 11-car finish.
How slow was it?
In qualifying specification Leclerc was 0.987s slower than Bottas. In the opening trouble-free 25 laps, prior to the Safety Car period, Leclerc lost 26.258s, equating to 1.050s per lap. Both were on Soft tyres. Discounting the first lap, ie, once the train has settled down after the opening scraps, Leclerc relinquished 20.865s in 24 laps, making an average of 0.869s each lap. In the next stage of the race, between the Magnussen-induced and Russell-triggered Safety Car phases, Leclerc relinquished an average of 0.916s per lap to Bottas. It could not be blamed on being baulked by the Perez/Norris scrap for he was not fast enough to even challenge at that stage. Both he and Bottas were on the Hard tyres having made their expected sole stop on lap 26. The 10-lap shootout to the finish made for better reading for Leclerc and Ferrari but given he was on 10-lap old Mediums, while Bottas was on 35-lap old Hards and nursing a gearbox problem, the average deficit of a tenth per lap was substantially less representative. The struggling Vettel, mired at the back, also took on Softs at the second Safety Car period but relinquished an average of 2.084s per lap. He was also overtaken by Antonio Giovinazzi, in an Alfa Romeo that was slowest in qualifying, and the recovering Albon, prior to the Red Bull’s exit.
“I don’t know… I don’t know… very poor braking stability, very difficult in the rear, it was nowhere near the same car as we had two days ago,” said Vettel as he radioed in on the cool-down lap.
Can it be fixed?
That is the key question. The Red Bull Ring is a power-heavy circuit and thus if Ferrari feels a problem is in a straight-line this may be alleviated at some venues – but could lead to further humiliation at other tracks, particularly home track Monza, and potentially Mugello, should the circuit that it owns join the calendar.
In his post-race media debrief Binotto warned that the Hungary updates “will not be the final solution” and warned “there is no silver bullet”, while hinting that the performance was so disappointing that it may try and ready some of the revised components for this weekend’s Styrian Grand Prix. But one aspect working against Ferrari is that engine development, aside from reliability fixes, is frozen.
Of its near-second deficit Binotto suggested three-tenths was being lost through corners while “there is seven-tenths on the straight, and I think that one will be very much difficult.”
And while it faces a deficit in all areas it should also be noted that rivals Mercedes and Red Bull will hardly be standing still either. That Binotto referred to a correlation issue was also concerning, for if there was a problem several months ago there can be no guarantee that new components will provide the remedy.
But how much of the straight-line speed is the pure performance and how much is drag?
“I think it’s, in part, the two,” said Binotto. “There’s a bit of engine power and there is a part of the drag itself. While in the engine side development is frozen, on the drag side there’s a lot we can do and we’re putting all our efforts in there.”
Binotto was not about to be drawn into a discussion over the engine settlement but rivals had their suspicions that whatever had been agreed with the FIA had led to a year-on-year power reduction.
Alfa Romeo did not make Frederic Vasseur available for comment but on the situation Haas boss Guenther Steiner said: “I don’t know if there is a fuel flow situation for sure there is the common denominator which is the engine in these three cars going slower than last year in qualifying, it was well documented, and I don’t really know.
“I wasn’t involved in the engine, what happened at the end of the year, so I cannot comment on that one, but for sure we didn’t go any faster and there were very few cars that went slower and most with the Ferrari, so I think we need to look into it but it’s more a question for Ferrari than for me.”
Ferrari has gone 12 years without a title and needs a miracle to even get itself in contention for wins this season. Given the engine freeze, stable regulations, and a downbeat driver, it could be a dismally troubling campaign for Maranello.