The Circuit de Catalunya-Barcelona track can be compared to an open-air wind tunnel. The long, medium-speed corners are an ideal testing venue for the aerodynamics of the cars, and the long pit straight is a true test of efficiency. The recent return to the original layout, with the elimination of the chicane in the third sector, has further highlighted these characteristics. The chicane had high and steep curbs, the “aggression” of which could allow for significant time savings per lap. For this reason, until last season, there was a tendency to compromise the mechanical setup to soften it and allow for better passage through that section. The absence of such a situation this year, replaced by the exact opposite, namely two high-speed corners, has allowed the teams’ engineers to decide on the cars’ setups without any compromise, in an attempt to extract all possible potential.
Notably, Ferrari brought significant aerodynamic updates to Barcelona, including new side pods and a new floor, in an attempt to change the way the SF-23 car generates downforce, especially at the rear. Mercedes, too, faced the first real test of its package of changes introduced in Monaco, given the limited representativeness of the streets of the Principality. Similar to the red car, the team from Brackley has modified the basic concept of the car, introducing a new floor and new side pods, following a philosophy somewhat similar to what we’ve seen on the Red Bull.
From what we know, both Toto Wolff and Frederic Vasseur pushed for this configuration not so much because it promised immediate gains, but to have certainties to build upon for the development process that will lead to the 2024 cars. The original concepts of Ferrari and Mercedes were proving flawed, and the time invested in trying to bridge the gap between simulation theory and track reality was now only giving further advantage to a Red Bull that is clearly ahead of its rival at this stage of the 2023 Formula 1 championship.
The study: comparing 2022 with 2023 for the top three teams
It is therefore interesting to study the performances of the three cars, Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull, on a circuit like Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, comparing each with its counterpart from the previous Formula One season. Certainly, Aston Martin is also one of the best cars on the track this year, but the suboptimal performance this season, combined with the non-representative performance of 2022, made a detailed study of Stroll’s team’s car unreliable and, therefore, it has not been included by Federico Albano in his analysis for the Italian website FormulaPassion.
Telemetry data from the qualifying lap, comparable until turn 13
The best condition for comparing performance between the two years is the best qualifying lap, where the cars express their pure maximum performance for the entire Spanish weekend. We have limited the comparison up to the entrance of turn 13, where the track was the same between the two seasons, and the direct comparisons of the data have yielded interesting results. Let’s start with a general analysis of the following three telemetry graphs.
As for Ferrari, the comparison is between Charles Leclerc’s pole lap in 2022 and Carlos Sainz’s second-fastest time in 2023. The significant gain in top speed for the red car on the main straight, amounting to 11 km/h, is immediately evident. The car seems to benefit from the stiffer setup introduced in 2023, which allows for higher cornering speeds combined with a noticeable increase in straight-line speeds. However, there is not a truly substantial leap forward, with a performance difference that is not as radical as one would expect from a car that has undergone a whole year of evolution. In the first two sectors, Carlos Sainz has less than half a second advantage compared to Charles Leclerc’s lap from the previous year (compared to Mercedes’ approximately seven tenths and Red Bull’s over one second advantage), mostly gained in the straight-line speed (three tenths on the main straight).
For Mercedes, the situation is practically the opposite: the straight-line speed remains similar or decreases, but the W14 in its “B” version is significantly faster in medium-speed corners like turn 4 and turn 8, and very effective under braking, indicating an increase in aerodynamic load and a greatly improved suspension package for longitudinal weight transfer.
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Finally, Red Bull somewhat breaks the pattern, managing to achieve impressive straight-line speeds combined with a clear improvement in every corner of the track. In fact, in the high-speed turn 9, Max Verstappen was forced to noticeably lift off the throttle last season, while this year he could take it at full throttle.
The indicators speak even more clearly
Let’s now focus on some key indicators we derived from this data. One is the so-called “load index,” and the other is what we have called the “deviation index.” The load index is calculated by dividing the average speed over a track section by the maximum speed achieved. The higher the result, the higher (indicatively) the vertical load of the car.
The deviation index, on the other hand, is the standard deviation of the speed data for a particular section divided by the average speed in that section. The standard deviation itself is an indication of the aerodynamic load of the car, but in an inverse manner. In other words, the higher the standard deviation, the lower the load, with values that tend to be somewhat “spread out” and away from the average. We then divide it by the same average speed to make a more “independent” comparison across different cars and seasons. By comparing values and indices, we find unequivocal answers regarding what we are seeing on the track.
Regarding Ferrari, the load index drops significantly, even over 2%. The deviation index also increases by almost 1%, unequivocally indicating a loss of aerodynamic load on the car, in contrast to what happens with the competitors of the Maranello team.
For Red Bull, we notice a slight decrease in the load index, but it is motivated by the great efficiency in straight-line speed, allowing the RB19 to reach 330 km/h despite using the same wing specifications as in Monaco. The deviation index decreases by almost 3%, demonstrating a significant increase in vertical load on Adrian Newey’s impressive car. These indices show how the Red Bull RB19 is, in practice, an evolved RB18 in terms of both vertical load and efficiency, representing an all-around step forward compared to the already excellent car from the previous season.
Finally, for Mercedes, we observe the most significant leap, as expected. The W13 was a car that suffered from a lack of vertical load, and the two drivers have confirmed that this W14B has made a significant leap in terms of downforce. At Brackley, they sacrificed top speed, as the W13, with a top speed of 324 km/h, was the fastest among the three cars considered in 2022 (318 Ferrari, 321 Red Bull), while in 2023, it was the slowest with the same top speed (329 Ferrari, 330 Red Bull). However, the load index increased by almost 2%, accompanied by a corresponding decrease of almost 5% in the deviation index, a significant number that shows the decision to abandon the path of minimizing resistance in favor of maximizing load.
What these numbers, including a comprehensive slide, show is how Red Bull has made complete progress, significantly increasing the load while managing to increase top speed and thus further enhancing the aerodynamic efficiency of their car. The experiments seen in 2022 to increase vertical load were partially abandoned due to balance issues and were no longer necessary given Ferrari’s decline. Everything was meticulously prepared for the RB19, which indeed displays the unrivaled performance we continue to see on the track.
Mercedes seems to have turned the page, finally finding the coveted load after much work, creating a solid foundation to build upon. On the other hand, Ferrari’s overall step backward is evident, with the increase in straight-line speed mainly achieved through a significant loss of aerodynamic load, which negatively affects many other factors, particularly tire management. Whether the lack of vertical load is due to an inherent condition of the SF-23 or a series of limitations due to the setup (especially the mechanical one) is difficult to determine with certainty. The perception is that the problem is a combination of both factors, with the Maranello car already not exhibiting significant levels of downforce and also struggling with a suspension system that is currently unable to optimize its operation in multiple aspects, including aerodynamic bouncing, corner stability, and the difficulty of compensating for a weak front end that prevents proper loading of the rear. The road ahead for the Maranello team unfortunately appears long and full of obstacles.