Thursday’s free practice sessions in Monaco saw a surprise leader in Charles Leclerc, closely followed by his Ferrari team-mate Carlos Sainz in second. It’s the first time in a long while – Brazil 2019 to be exact – that Ferrari have topped a session. So why were they so quick around Monaco’s tight and twisty streets?
Many believed the Monte Carlo track would suit the Red Bull RB16B, with Max Verstappen very much the favourite this weekend… but are Ferrari going to cause upset in the Red Bull camp?
The SF21 in Monaco seems to give confidence to both Leclerc and Sainz, and the gap to Ferrari’s closest championship rival, McLaren, was over half a second in FP2. Over such a short track that is by no means an irrelevant fact.
So what is the reason for this clear improvement by Ferrari?
Ferrari’s shorter wheelbase might be giving them a small benefit here. Unlike its rival, the MCL35M, which is longer and likely to perform better on medium/high speed tracks. However this certainly wouldn’t account for such a major turnaround.
Undoubtedly, the main cause is attributable to the adaptation that the SF21 has towards a track like Monaco. In this type of circuit it is necessary to have a precise front, with excellent traction when exiting the slow corners.
In Spain, two weeks earlier, the Italian car shone in the third sector of the Montmelò circuit, which is very similar to the characteristics of the Monegasque track.
If last year’s problems with the SF1000 were mainly related to aerodynamics and the Power Unit, the mechanical side on the contrary has always behaved well. The two tokens spent to modify the gearbox, and revisit the suspension attachments, have made it possible to improve the rear of the SF21, both in terms of aerodynamics and in terms of improved grip and traction.
The suspension adjustments allow the SF21 to have an almost always optimal set-up on the streets of the principality, and from the onboard cameras it was clear just how precise the car was, absorbing the bumps of the city streets to give its drivers absolute confidence.
The newfound stability of the rear is also due to the fact that Ferrari has interpreted the 2021 regulations to its benefit. The floor manages to generate sufficient downforce even with the diagonal narrowing of about 100mm towards the rear wheel. During the opening races, Mattia Binotto’s team brought two floor updates to both Imola and Portimao, the most important of which is the one seen for the Made in Italy GP with the implementation of the “Z” cut.
The vortices that are created, also thanks to a small deflector placed at the very beginning of the Z, allow you to create a sort of aerodynamic seal to increase the ground effect. This was very pronounced before this year, with the floor equipped with a series of slots to achieve this, though they have been banned this year.
In Portimao the flow deviators in front of the rear wheel totalled seven, but for now it was only an experimental data collection test in view of the next races.
Ferrari has undoubtedly managed to unleash even more downforce than last season, despite the 2021 limitations. To all this is added the newfound power of the Power Unit 065/6, which allows the team to run greater downforce without losing too much top-speed. In fact the Ferrari was one of the quickest through the speed traps on Thursday.
You can see how Ferrari are running a much more angled wing here in Monaco (and in Spain) to achieve great rear downforce, compared to Imola earlier in the year.
Ferrari has always enjoyed a set-up with a horizontal main plane, even at circuits with less downforce, such as Bahrain and Imola. For the latter race, the spoon rear wing was tested (not used though because of the wet weather), while in Portugal the wing was of the same type as Bahrain and Barcelona.
The spoon wing will likely reappear in view of the Azerbaijan GP, a track where there is a very long straight. In Baku it will be really essential for Ferrari to be competitive, to aid its fight for third place in the Constructors’ Standings.
Another interesting fact is that Ferrari does not seem to suffer from the heat. The high temperatures sent Ferrari into crisis mode in tyre management in Bahrain and Portugal, while in Barcelona the Ferrari engineers admitted that Leclerc would have managed to finish the race with only one pit stop.
Regarding the heat, perhaps the Ferrari Power Unit requires more attention to cooling than its rivals. Only in Imola, where it rained and was fairly chilly, did Ferrari adopt a narrow engine cover (V3). The team has run three different versions, with Monaco seeing V2 in use, which gives medium cooling requirements, unlike in Bahrain where V1 was needed.
The more closed version is obviously the one that best favors fluid dynamics, offering less space. However, for cooling needs, Ferrari will almost always use version 2, to have a better balance between thermal dissipation and aerodynamic efficiency.