“Why are we so slow?” asked Sebastian Vettel during the Australian Grand Prix. It was a legitimate question. The Ferrari SF90 had been the car to beat in pre-season testing. All the teams’ data – including Mercedes – said they were favourites. But in Melbourne, Ferrari were a shadow of their dominant testing figure, shunted into the long grass by a Silver Arrow reborn with missile-guided accuracy. So what went wrong?
Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari had won the previous two editions of the Australian Grand Prix. That, combined with their pre-season form, would ordinarily put them in the driving seat. But those two victories were against the run of play, when Mercedes were off colour and Ferrari were shrewd enough to take advantage.
Auto Motor and Sport’s Michael Schmidt relects on the Maranello team’s struggles in Melbourne: “All the good qualities of the SF90 had remained somewhere on the track since the testing. And nobody knew where. The engineers searched three days for the right balance, but in the end the unpredictable car robbed the drivers of their confidence. Only now and then did the Ferrari show its good sides. For example in fast corners. But it was dramatically too slow in the slow corners. Nobody could explain why. Mattia Binotto concludes: ‘The set-up didn’t fit. The car’s foundation is good.’ Which means that Ferrari is confident that Melbourne was one-off.” – Michael Schmidt reports. In the fast corners, there was little to choose between Mercedes and Ferrari, but that gap grew in the slow corners and ballooned in the medium-speed corners, where even customers Haas were stronger. Then on the straights, they were well off. Only Red Bull and Haas had a bigger gap to Mercedes.
At the same time “the Ferrari SF90 showed different performances on the three tyre compounds. Decent on the soft C4 tyre, frighteningly weak on the C3, best on the hard C2. This is an indication that the Ferrari doesn’t always bring the tyres in the right working window.”
In terms of straight-line speed, Ferrari weren’t brilliant in this area last year either. In 2018, the best Ferrari powered-car was Charles Leclerc in the Sauber, 5.7km/h off in the speed trap. That compares to 7.3km/h this year, with Kimi Raikkonen the best performer with a Ferrari engine in the Alfa Romeo. Admittedly, the works cars were further off, with Vettel 18.2km/h slower in the speed trap, but that was better than last year, when Raikkonen was 23.1km/h off.
Part of these struggles can be put down to Ferrari’s inability to find a good balance at any point during the weekend. The car simply lacked the grip that it enjoyed in buckets at Barcelona. No matter what set-up Ferrari tried during practice, not one of them worked.
When you don’t have the right balance, the car is not well-balanced in the corner and in turn, you do not exit as you would expect. Another school of thought is that their front wing design – a different concept to that of Mercedes – had limitations on a street/temporary circuit, which in turn caused unwanted understeer.