Since Formula 1’s summer break ended, the Ferrari SF90 has looked like a different car, and its results have been similarly transformed.
At first it seemed this might be down to a quirk of track configuration. The car had always looked good on tracks with plenty of straights where it could unleash the prancing horses, and fewer corners to expose its grip deficit.
So when Ferrari finally took their breakthrough 2019 victory at the 13th time of asking at Spa, and followed that up by painting Monza red for good measure, it seemed no great cause for alarm among its rivals.
Then came the shock of Singapore. Before the weekend began a repeat of Ferrari’s dire Hungaroring performance, where Lewis Hamilton put over a minute on them, seemed realistic. But they took the lead and controlled the race from the start.
In Sochi the team – or, to be specific, Charles Leclerc – grabbed their fourth consecutive pole position. That’s more than they managed in the 12 races before the factory shutdown. Four pole positions in a row across a fairly broad range of circuits indicates the team has finally untapped the raw potential of its 2019 chassis.
As covered here previously, while pre-season testing flattered Ferrari’s performance relative to Mercedes, it nonetheless appeared the team’s design philosophy had constrained the potential of their car. Among the car’s most distinctive features is its ‘inboard loaded’ front wing, which visibly deviates from the approach preferred by the likes of Mercedes.
However in Russia team principal Mattia Binotto said the team’s recent progress vindicates its design philosophy. “On the front wing, I think that someone are copying us at the moment more than us the others,” he noted. McLaren is one team which has adopted a similar style front wing to Ferrari’s since the season began. What’s more, with little changing in the technical regulations for 2020, Binotto is confident enough in the team’s direction to assert next year’s Ferrari “will be a development of the current one.”
Early in the season it seemed Ferrari’s aerodynamically efficient car platform was losing out in sheer performance to the raw downforce Mercedes were able to extract from their W10, particularly when it came to the ever-present necessity of optimising F1’s fickle Pirelli tyre compounds. Again, Binotto believes their recent success has shown his team is on the right path.
“Drag or efficiency? I think obviously to develop an efficient car is always important for fuel economy, for speed – I don’t think it’s a completely wrong or bad concept.”
Mattia Binotto also pointed out, persuasively, that Ferrari’s failure to win races in the first part of 2019 was not simply due to a lack of performance: “If you look at the season, if we count the missed opportunities and the victories, I don’t think we are on the wrong side of the sum and of the balance. So I think there have been other reasons why this season we have not performed as expected which is not only the car concept. But by the time that the weaknesses are addressed I think we can be quite competitive and the last races have shown it.”
He’s not wrong. Ferrari had a car quick enough to win in Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Canada and Austria. That they didn’t was not due to lack of performance but a combination of driver errors, team errors and car failures. Had those four races flipped for Ferrari instead of Mercedes (thrice) and Red Bull – plus another likely win in Sochi lost to a power unit failure – Ferrari would be a much more credible threat to Mercedes in this year’s championship fight.
Significantly, Binotto indicated the team’s gains haven’t simply come from the visible aero developments they have made since the Spanish Grand Prix, where the car’s shortfalls in downforce and slow-corner grip were exposed.
“We put a lot of effort internally first in terms of performance assessment to try to understand what were the weaknesses of the car, the behaviours of the tyres and tried to set a direction of development,” said Binotto – “Obviously that direction of development has been continuous. I have to say because of this not only in Singapore that [we] brought some parts but we brought [some] earlier as well in the season in other races. What we achieved in Singapore has been the sum of everything.
“It’s not only aero. Certainly with the aero we have addressed one of the weaknesses we’ve got. But I think has been coming through as well a good understanding of the car, finding the right compromise on the balance and the set-up. And I think it’s altogether really car understanding, set-up that and aero that moved forward.”
Unfortunately for Ferrari, this has almost certainly come too late for either of the championships to be salvaged. But it does indicate the team is, at this early stage, in good shape for next season.
“Whatever you are doing on the current car, being that the regulations are the same next year [it] will be certainly of interest. I think whatever you are building on this season in terms of overall understanding will be key for next year as well.
“So that’s I think we are still focussing or putting effort on 2019 not only because we are seeking for victories but because we know that a good understanding of the overall car performance in this season will be to the benefit of next season.”
In this respect, the team’s form at this stage of the season will be a wake-up call for their rivals. Having started 2017 and 2018 strongly, Ferrari didn’t end either championship particularly well. In 2017 they scored just one win after the summer break, and two last year. Since their summer breakthrough, Ferrari have won three from four in 2019 so far.