Performance analysis – why are Ferrari lagging behind?

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Spain, Circuit de Catalunyaes

Continuing its dominance, Mercedes claimed its fifth one-two finish in a row at the Spanish Grand Prix to beat its own record set in Azerbaijan a fortnight ago. In contrast to that outstanding performance, its fierce rival Ferrari can’t find any remedy for frightening performance difference.

The Anglo-German outfit set a new record for one-two finishes at the start of a season in Baku. Previously, Williams held this record with its amazing performances back in 1993 when the Grove-based team scored three consecutive one-two finishes with Nigel Mansell and Ricciardo Patrese at the start of the season.

Despite showing impressive pace during the pre-season testing, Ferrari could not repeat its winter preformance as the season kicked off in Australia. After five races, the Scuderia trails Mercedes by a whopping deficit of 96 points in the Constructors’ Championship. There are sixteen rounds to go, but Mercedes arguably enjoys a healthy and daunting performance advantage over Ferrari, jeopardizing the excitment of the season which could see Mercedes clinching both championship titles for the sixth consecutive time.

Searching for reasons for the big performance difference, the first rounds indicated that Mercedes’ advantage come from its cornering speed. The W10 has lower top-speed than the SF90, but its car carries higher speed through the corners. This theory was backed by the characteristics of the first four tracks which the field visited at the start of the season. In Australia, Ferrari were only the third force behind Mercedes and Red Bull while Bahrain, China and Baku saw Ferrari clawing back towards the top of the field. In fact, in Manama and Baku, Charles Leclerc was the fastest with his Ferrari, but technical problems in Bahrain and driver error in Azerbaijan prevented the Monegasque driver from winning the race.

Qualifying for the Spanish GP

Valtteri Bottas secured the pole position for the Spanish Grand Prix with the fastest ever lap on the Barcelona-Catalunya circuit. The Finn’s lap time of 1m15.406 was 886 thousandths of a second faster than Sebastian Vettel’s best lap time. That difference was surprising following Ferrari’s strong showing over the course of winter testing.

Mercedes and Ferrari were neck on neck in the dying minutes of the pre-season testing. Before the season kicked off, the Italians led the timing sheets during the Barcelona tests with a 1.16.221 while the Anglo-German team was only a microscopical three thousandths of a seconds behind with a time of 1.16.224. Shockingly, despite to the higher temperatures, Mercedes have found a huge amount of lap time for the GP weekend to claim the pole position with a time of 1:15.406 while Ferrari could not even improve on their testing time with Vettel’s lap-time of 1:16.272.

Turn 10 as the most critical point

During the qualifying, Ferrari was 0.204 seconds faster than Mercedes in the first sector, but it lost three tenths of a second in the middle part of the circuit while the last sector saw Mercedes gaining 0.635 seconds on its rival.

-Sector OneSector TwoSector Three
Difference to Ferrari+0.204-0.317-0.635

During Ferrari’s and Mercedes fastest qualifying lap, the Italians’ car lost in 14 of the 16 corners of the Barcelona track compared with the rival’s car. The SF90 was faster only in Turn 9 and 16 which are both taken at full speed. The red car was faster on all longer full-throttle sections, including the main and back straight, of course.

Vettel gained two tenths of a second on the start-finish straight and on the braking zone into the first turn. However, as soon as Bottas applied the throttle, Mercedes gained a tenth of a second back in Turn 2 and 3. In the following Turn 3, the difference remained the same thanks to the good exit of the W10 car, but the SF90 could gain just under a tenth between Turn 3 and 4.

In the fourth bend, Bottas gained 0.150 seconds as the W10 reacted much better again on the trottle application. The Finn gained a further two tenths of a second in Turn 5. Vettel was gaining on the run-down towards Turn 7 thanks to the higher top-speeds. However, as soon as they applied the thottle out of that bend, Vettel was losing time massively. When the German recovered from the latest weak corner exit, he was gaining again from the entry to Turn 9 until the braking zone to Turn 10. The gain was around 0.150 seconds.

Turn 10 was the biggest setback for Ferrari as Vettel lost a bit over three tenths in that one single corner. In Turn 11 and 12, the German lost another two tenths while Turn 13 saw Vettel being a further tenth slower compared with Bottas. The chinane was the second weakest point for Ferrari as the SF90 lost a bit over two tenths in those two slow corners while the last part of the track taken flat-out saw Vettel clawing back a little bit of time again.

No quick fix for the issues

During the Spanish Grand Prix weekend, Vettel admitted that his team is well aware of the fact that it has been losing time in certain types of corners and that it has become a trend between the W10 and the SF90 after the first five races of the season.

"Now is not the first time we are losing out and not the second time nor the third time. It is a consistent trend that we seem to lose, in some places, independent of conditions, sunshine, clouds, tyres and compounds and so on.”

"There is a bit more for us to understand but if we had the solution surely it would be on the car already."

Team principal Mattia Binotto praised his team for the updates which worked as the engineers expected them to function. The Italian, however, acknowledged that their car still clear flaws remaining.

„The updates we brought here to Barcelona, both on the aero front and on the engine, worked well and we are more than pleased with them, but they proved to be insufficient. Now we have to analyse and think about what did not work. And when it comes to that, as of today I don't think we have a precise answer. I think power wise and straightline speed we are good enough, but certainly we have some weaknesses on the car that were highlighted this weekend.”

The Barcelona qualifying showed that Ferrari has a car which produces very little drag compared with the rival cars. That, combined with a very strong engine, Ferrari can count on its top-end speed on any straights. In qualifying, the SF90 is superior in terms of straight-line speed thanks to its engine modes, but it Barcelona with the upgraded engine, the SF90 was gaining a tenth or two throughout the whole race over Mercedes and a bit over Red Bull. The Anglo-German team’s drivers only could macth Ferrari’s time in the first sector before the pit stops when they were given higher engine modes.

However, Ferrari’s corerning speed is worrying. The corner entry speed is good, the car is relatively stable during the braking zones, but the difference gets enormous when applying the throttle. The W10 can carry higher speed through the corners and its traction is also second to none. In the extremely slow corners such as the chicane or Turn 10 and in long bends such as Turn 4 at Barcelona, the W10 is a cut above the SF90.

Its engine performance could be the remedy for Ferrari as they could apply the old trick of sacrificing top-end speed in favour of cornernig speed by using steeper wing angles. However, Ferrari aerodynamic concept, its optimal rake angle and most importantly its lower downforce front wing could simply mean that adding downforce that way is not that straightforward. If that is the case, Ferrari would need to overhaul its whole aerodynamic concept. However, it could take at least a few months and by that time, Mercedes could disappear in the distance with both titles if it is not the case already.