Ferrari with fluctuating pace – Race analysis

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Mercedes presented itself once again in dominant fashion in the Hungarian Grand Prix with Lewis Hamilton taking the win at the final race meeting before the summer break thanks to the brilliance of his car and a faultless strategy. F1Technical's Balázs Szabó takes a look at the pecking order at the last race event before the summer break.

Lewis Hamilton took his 81th carrier victory while his team Mercedes recorded its 97th Formula One triumph in Budapest on Sunday. Despite to failing to qualify on the first row, the Briton managed to get ahead of his team-mate Valtteri Bottas right at the start and he emerged victorious in a hard-fought strategy battle with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.

Ferrari trailed its main rivals by a tiny margin in the qualifying session, but the Scuderia was in no man’s land in the race after being unable to replicate the long-distance performance of Mercedes and Red Bull. As Hungaroring features a tight and twisty layout with only one significant straight, the 4381-metre-long circuit located just on the outskirts of Budapest was always going to be a real struggle for the Scuderia.

Converging qualifying pace

Despite to the slow-speed and elongated corners, qualifying conditions flattered Ferrari and Red Bull as the Saturday’s most important session indicated that they can keep up with the field-leading Mercedes. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen came out on top with Valtteri Bottas securing the second place by just 0.018 seconds adrift of the pole-position. Ferrari’s faster driver Charles Leclerc was 0.471 seconds off the pace while his team-mate Sebastian Vettel was only 0.028 separated from the Monegasque.

With Ferrari setting the pace in the first, Mercedes in the middle and Red Bull in the third sector, it seemed that the Formula One community looks set for a thrilling three-way fight on Sunday. However, looking at the sector times, it is obvious that Ferrari’s advantage on the straights was not enough to make up for the lost time in Sector 2 and 3.

Observing the behaviour of the cars in the last sector, Ferrari’s SF90 was unable to carry the same speed through the corners. In fact, the car was rather unstable and incalculable, producing understeer in corner entry and in mid-corner at Turn 14. In that particular turn, Ferrari was around 10 kph slower than Mercedes.

However, according to the GPS, the W10 had the upper hand in every single corner of the second and third sector of the Hungaroring. The only exception was the fast, almost flat-out Turn 11.

Mercedes with superior race pace

In the race, the pecking order between the sport’s three leading teams, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull suffered a vital change. While Red Bull set the pace in the qualifying session, marginally beating Mercedes and Ferrari could hold on like grim death, the race saw the order reshuffling. Comparing the fastest laps is meaningless as all four top drivers opted for different strategies. Sebastian Vettel extended his first stint hoping for a safety car period, Charlec Leclerc went for a Pirelli-recommended strategy, Max Verstappen was forced by the faster Mercedes to do an early pit stop, compromising his overall strategy while Mercedes chief strategist James Vowel worked out an extreme strategy for Hamilton to make use of the W10’s superior race pace.

For Red Bull, the Hungarian Grand Prix was always going to be a race to lose. Thanks to Verstappen’s brilliant qualifying lap, Red Bull emerged victorious on Saturday afternoon by just 0.018 seconds, but Mercedes was clearly the quickest car on Sunday. Lewis Hamilton was controlling the entire race with looking after the engine and brake operating temperatures at certain times and also pushing when needed.

Immediately after things settled down following the start, the Briton left a two-second gap to Verstappen to enable his car to cool down on the straights. On lap 16, fearing from an early pit stop of Red Bull, Hamilton started to close in on the Dutchman, driving two tenths of a seconds faster on average. Verstappen dived into the pits on lap 25. Hamilton was then allowed to use higher engine mode and the maximum grip of his C3 Pirelli tyres, albeit he was unable to carry out an overcut move against his Dutch rival.

Six laps later, he also came in to the pit lane for fresh tyres. Mercedes was not brilliant on that occasion, changing the tyres on the Briton’s car in four seconds. However, Hamilton was able to hunt Verstappen down as his first lap on the fresh rubber was a whopping 2.214 faster than the Dutchman’s time on that particular lap. That advantage indicated that Red Bull was in an uncomfortable position.

The 21-year-old driver was able to fend off Hamilton’s overtaking manoeuvres, but Red Bull’s hands were tied. Had they pitted Verstappen, Hamilton could have managed the race on his six-lap fresher tyres until the end. Had they reacted to the Briton’s second pit stop, the Dutchman would have come out on to the track behind his rival and with Mercedes’ significant pace advantage, it would have been impossible to hunt him down.

Disappointed by the way how the race panned out for his team, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner also emphasised that his outfit could not manage the race any better strategy-wise.

“We needed to pit earlier to cover Lewis, who pitted six laps later and Mercedes had great pace today. They pushed, pushed, pushed and we were able to protect and defend. Max and Lewis were so far ahead of the field with 22 laps to go that Mercedes rolled the strategic dice and pitted Lewis for new medium tyres. If we had pitted to cover we would have conceded track position so our bed was made to get to the end of the race,” he said.

Lack of downforce and fading speed

In the 70-lap race, Ferrari completely lost the connection to its rivals. Third-placed Sebastian Vettel finished the race 61.433, fourth-placed Charles Leclerc 65.250 seconds behind race winner Lewis Hamilton. The gap between Vettel and Hamilton is equivalent to an average loss of 0.878 seconds per lap. While the Briton was driving at his W10’s ultimate pace during his combat with Verstappen for the victory, the two Ferraris could use slightly lower engine modes.

However, with Vettel and Leclerc cruising approximately seven tenth slower than the leading cars already in the opening laps, it very much indicates that the real gap was in that region. The question popped up why the single-pace gap of 0,471 seconds increased to around 8 tenths a second, a phenomenon which has happened on several occasions this year. Ferrari, the team which used to have a better race pace than qualifying speed in relative terms, has underperformed in long stints compared with its single-lap performances so far this year.

When asked to explain the reasons behind the fading pace, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto said in Hungary that the car has been carrying different anomalies in terms of ultimate downforce which is less significant on fresh tyres when maximum mechanical grip is available.

“You are suffering even more in the race compared to the quali, because in the single lap of the quali eventually the grip of the tyres is coping with the lack of downforce it may have, but over a long distance you are sliding, overheating the tyres and things are certainly more complicated.”

During Ferrari’s post-race media session on Sunday, the Swiss-Italian stressed out that the lack of downforce on the SF90 is a complicated matter as the aerodynamics work efficiently in certain conditions and settings, but on slow-speed circuits like Monaco or the Hungaroring, the car does not produce constant and the right amount of downforce. This theory is supported also by the fact that Ferrari was probably the fastest car in Hockenheim with the SF90 also being competitive in the twisty final sector while on the Hungaroring, the car lacked downforce in all types of corners.

“I think what we should try to explain is not the minute [gap] but how is it possible that maybe a week ago [in Germany] we have the fastest car, and today we are somehow not the fastest. Here, as we often say, is very track dependent. We know that our car is somehow lacking maximum downforce and when you are somehow on a circuit like Budapest where maximum downforce is required, then we are certainly suffering,” Binotto added.

According to Auto Motor und Sport’s respected journalist Michael Schmidt, engine modes also play a significant role in the way how the pecking order alters from Saturday to Sunday. According to the German publication, Ferrari can use a very aggressive power setting over a hot lap which can give as much as 40 bhp additional power output. However, it can not be used in any part of the race, not even for a short period of time while overtaking or defending and this aggressive engine mode is not available for Ferrari’s customer teams Haas and Alfa Romeo.

Fact is, Ferrari was the fastest in the opening sector featuring the main straight and two other relatively long full-throttle segments, but that advantage diminished for the race, indicating that Mercedes and Red Bull closed in on their Italian rival in terms of peak power output.