Qualifying analysis - Where does Ferrari gain on a flying lap?

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F1 Grand Prix, GP Russia, Sochi International Street Circuitru

Scuderia Ferrari has secured the pole position for the last four grands prix while its arch-rival Mercedes has failed to emerge fastest in any of the qualifying sessions after the summer break. We look back at the qualifying session for the Russian Grand Prix to find out the strengths and weaknesses of the SF90.

Despite to Mercedes’ dominance for the majority of the 2019 season, the recent qualifying sessions were dominated by Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque has snatched pole position on six occasions while Lewis Hamilton has been fastest in qualifying sessions four times so far in 2019. The Briton’s teammate has also secured the first starting position on four occasions while the remaining two pole positions went to Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen.

Last Saturday, Leclerc secured his fourth successive pole position in Russia after controlling every segment of the qualifying session on both the soft C4 and the medium C3 Pirelli compound. On his way to the first starting position, the Monegasque set a time of 1m31.628 which was 0.402 seconds faster than the second fastest qualifying lap set by Lewis Hamilton.

After the strong showing during the last three qualifying sessions in Spa, Monza and Singapore, Ferrari was expected to excel on the Sochi Autodrom featuring extremely long full-throttle sections in the first two sectors. The 5.848km track is defined by two long straights, the highspeed multi-apex horseshoe-shaped Turn 3 and by a large number of 90°, medium-speed corners. However, some question marks were raised over the smooth surface of the asphalt layer, but in the end Ferrari could get Pirelli’s tyres to work.

Corner by corner

When comparing the fastest qualifying laps of Leclerc and Hamilton, the trend can be recognized which has been seen across the season so far. Ferrari’s SF90 dominated each full-throttle section while Mercedes’ W10 emerged as the dominant force in the corners. Leclerc gained the most on three parts of the circuit. Of these sections, the long start-finish straight / curvature and the back curved section between Turn 10 and 13 were not surprising, however the Monegasque also gained through Turn 3 thanks to the fact that the current Formula One cars take that big-radius curvature at full throttle.

Interestingly, the 21-year-old was also faster through the medium-speed Turn 4. As a result of the top-speed advantage, Leclerc gained almost four tenths of a second on Hamilton in the first sector.

In the middle part of the track, Leclerc was 0.199 seconds faster than his nearest rival. He could gain that time mainly on the run-down to Turn 13. However, he was also faster through Turn 7 where drivers only touch the brakes for a few seconds before they pick up the throttle aggressively again.

The last segment of the track has been the territory of Hamilton and Verstappen over the weekend, however Leclerc became there more comfortable during the qualifying session than before in any practice sessions. The W10 was faster in every single corner of the third sector bar Turn 15 where Ferrari showed an incredible balance when riding aggressively over the very high kerbs. The Briton secured an overall gain of 0.184 seconds, making up for the lost ground in the opening and the middle sector.

Differing aerodynamic concept

Ferrari’s straight-line advantage has been a hot talking point over the year so far. According to Mercedes, in qualifying engine mode, the SF90 had been gaining around eight tenths of a second on the straights and another tenth of a second in a few corners where it was the faster car around the Sochi race track. It means that Hamilton could regain around half a second in the Mercedes-dominated corners. As Ferrari team principal indicated over the Russian Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari’s engine advantage is exaggerated. In fact, the last four race tracks showed that this advantage seems to be misunderstood as the straight-line difference between the SF90 and W10 is rather down to the very different aerodynamic concept and not down to the alleged engine advantage.

The SF90’s weakness has been its cornering speed mainly in the elongated, medium-speed corners. However, the Sochi Autodrom showed that Ferrari managed to enhance its car performance after improving the aerodynamic balance of the SF90. Of the twelve ‘real’ corners, Leclerc gained time on Hamilton in four bends of which three are 90-degree ones. This has been almost unimaginable earlier in the season. However, the forthcoming track of Suzuka will present the biggest challenge to the SF90 of the remaining five venues as the Japanese circuit features a large number of never-ending medium-speed corners where downforce is the defining factor.