Is Ferrari’s slow start to 2019 a repeat of 2018? Vettel reveals why the two are different

2019 Australian Grand Prix

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Ferrari’s performance in the opening race of the 2019 F1 season was very reminiscent of how they started last year.

On both occasions they were dubbed the ‘winter testing champions’ having run reliably and quickly at the Circuit de Catalunya in February and March.

But when they got to Melbourne they couldn’t keep the Mercedes in sight. In 2018 the quickest Ferrari in qualifying was 0.664 seconds slower than the pole-sitting Mercedes; last weekend the gap was 0.704 seconds.

However last year Ferrari moved on from Melbourne, sorted their car out and immediately turned the tables on Mercedes. They had the fastest car at the next three races.

On paper, that should give them cause for hope. The deficit could be specific to the unusual Melbourne circuit. After all, Mercedes were never as far ahead of Ferrari again throughout the rest of last year.

But on Sunday evening in Melbourne Sebastian Vettel revealed why the team had started last season on the back foot, and why it offers few clues as to what’s gone wrong this year.

“Now last year is one year ago so no big secrets any more,” Vettel began. “Last year we left winter testing with problems with the car. It wasn’t behaving the way we wanted it or the way it should.

“This year was the opposite. The car was behaving the way we expected and it felt very good.”

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Although Vettel won last year’s Australian Grand Prix the result was a fluke: A miscalculation by Mercedes during a Safety Car period gifted him victory when he was on course for third place in a weekend when the team was struggling with its car.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Albert Park, 2019
Hamilton expected a tougher fight with Ferrari
“We came here last year and the balance wasn’t right. We had a very poor rear end last year and we had to trim the car towards understeer a lot. That didn’t feel great.

“We managed for this weekend last year and obviously the race pace was fine but we weren’t there in qualifying. We got lucky in the race. By Bahrain we had a fix to our issues in winter testing and the first race last year and that’s why we all of a sudden unlocked a lot more pace last year.”

In contrast the cause of their current plight isn’t clear, said Vettel. “This year the problem that we have has nothing to do with what we have seen last year. Still the car and all the numbers and so on make sense, also this weekend. But clearly we are missing something.

“Right now we don’t have an answer but we need to get back, have a good look and I’m sure we’ll find something because I think we know the car is better than what we’ve seen, not just today but the whole weekend.”

It wasn’t just Ferrari who were surprised by their struggles in Melbourne, as Lewis Hamilton explained.

“We came into the weekend and what I was shown and led to believe from the analysis we were given was that they were ahead. And it obviously wasn’t the case during this weekend. I’m not quite sure why.”

But he is sure Ferrari will rebound. “I don’t know what their problem is but I’m sure they’ll come back strong in the next races. So we’ve got to stay on our toes.”

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Dieter Rencken
Dieter Rencken has held full FIA Formula 1 media accreditation since 2000, during which period he has reported from over 300 grands prix, plus...
Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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  • 30 comments on “Is Ferrari’s slow start to 2019 a repeat of 2018? Vettel reveals why the two are different”

    1. When I look at the chart showing the time behind the race leader, you can see that from about lap 29 Sebastian was much slower than Charles, and that Charles seemed to be lapping at the same speed as Valtteri. I’m not convinced there is a problem with the SF90. Maybe Sebastian’s car had been damaged in some way.

      1. @drycrust

        When I look at the chart showing the time behind the race leader, you can see that from about lap 29 Sebastian was much slower than Charles, and that Charles seemed to be lapping at the same speed as Valtteri.

        I’m afraid I have to disagree with your assessment of Leclerc’s pace. His curve looks flat when compared to Vettel’s, but the comparison with Bottas is nonetheless much less flattering:
        Lap 29 (beginning of Leclerc’s second stint): 35.2 seconds behind.
        Lap 48 (Leclerc has closed the gap to Vettel and starts losing time): 41.7 seconds behind.
        That’s 6.5 seconds over 19 laps, or 0.34 seconds per lap. Doesn’t sound like much, but this pace deficit would already be enough to build a gap of almost 20 seconds over a race distance.

        And that’s a very optimistic estimate, even if we ignore the fact that Leclerc’s tyres were 5 laps fresher than Bottas’. Why? Because it’s based on the assumption that Bottas and Leclerc were pushing equally hard. But that wasn’t the case, as the evolution of Bottas’ gap to his pursuers reveals. After lap 42, Bottas’ lead suddenly stopped expanding. If we compare the 6 laps before that point with the 6 laps afterwards, the following pattern emerges:
        From lap 36-42, Bottas’ expanded his lead over:
        – Hamilton and Verstappen by 5.3 seconds (0.88 per lap)
        – Vettel by 7.3 seconds (1.21 per lap)
        – Leclerc by 3.6 seconds (0.6 per lap).

        From lap 36-42:
        – Hamilton and Verstappen +0.6 (0.1 per lap)
        – Vettel +5.6 (0.93 per lap)
        – Leclerc +0.3 (0.05 per lap).

        In other words: Bottas slowed down by at least half a second per lap, so these last 6 laps before Leclerc caught Vettel were clearly not representative. If we exclude them and only look at the evolution of the gap between lap 29 and lap 42, Leclerc lost 6.2 seconds in 13 laps, or 0.48 seconds per lap (27 seconds over a race distance). And that’s the result we get when looking at Ferrari’s very best laps during the race, compared to a Mercedes with a lead of 15 to 25 seconds over the next car on the track (and therefore without the slightest need to push).

        => Ferrari’s pace deficit was very real, and it was there at every stage of the race. Vettel’s second stint may have been affected by a suboptimal strategy and excessive tyre management, so it’s fair to say that Ferrari weren’t really a minute slower than Mercedes. But on the other hand, they were also nowhere near Mercedes’ pace at any stage of the race.

        1. I haven’t seen analysis as good as this one for a long time. Thanks mate! I always loved numbers ’cause they never lie and you presented it perfectly. In my opinion Ferrari’s front wing favors denser/cooler air and they’ll hardly rebound as easily as last year. To much understeer before apex seen by SF90 and Alfa Romeo as well makes me think there is some kind of correlation.

        2. Vettel also pitted very early and put the medium, if I’m not mistaken, Charles was on hard and way fresher tires

        3. There’s still other metric we can use to compare Ferrari and Mercedes, and it looks even worse: The fastest lap. For the first time in fifty years, the top drivers have a reason to push to the limit at the same time. The result speaks loudly: Mercedes 7 tenths ahead of Red Bull, and… 1.4 seconds (!!!) ahead of Ferrari.

          1. @alonshow
            Yeah, but I think that’s a bad metric. It’s somewhat reliable in qualifying, when conditions are more or less the same for everyone, but even then it means we’re comparing individual laps by individual drivers, so that every little difference – that may or may not be due to the car’s performance – is amplified.
            In this case, we’re comparing Valtteri Bottas’ lap time on lap 57, set with 34 laps old C3 tyres with a clear track ahead of him, with Charles Leclerc’s lap time on lap 58, set with 30 laps old C2 tyres (fresher but harder), and with the crucial disadvantage of getting held up in the final sector.
            So, not only do we not know what the impact of the tyres might’ve been (it could really go either way, and by a few tenths, so that already casts some doubt on the relevance of those fastest lap times), but Leclerc didn’t even get to finish his lap. Apparently, Ferrari didn’t instruct Vettel to keep the pace up (or Vettel didn’t cooperate, which would be out of line with his post-race statements, but who knows). They told Leclerc to drop back and leave a gap of 4 seconds for his attempt to set the fastest lap (I tapped into their radio at this stage of the race, so this I know for sure). He obliged and started the final lap 5 seconds behind Vettel, but since Vettel’s final lap was a 1’30.8, that proved insufficient. I followed that final lap on the data monitor, and Leclerc lost 0.366 seconds in Sector 1, 0.299 in Sector 2 (at the end of which the gap between the Ferraris was already down to 1.675 seconds, i.e. dirty air galore), and finally 0.681 seconds in Sector 3. In other words, he lost at least 3 or 4 tenths in Sector 3 alone, and quite possibly started losing time due to Vettel’s presence even earlier.

            So, no: The fastest laps may look even worse, but they’re by no means a reliable performance indicator, as this example clearly shows.

    2. This a the great issue.

      Ferrari have made a car that handles well, rides bumps, is stable, drives well. There is nothing particular to fix, like an alarmingly poor back end. They cannot simply fix that and drive away with a second a lap faster car.

      What is even more alarming, Mercedes have a “terrible” car. One can see drivers reluctant to take curbs, very spirited and unstable. All in all 7 tenths faster in qualifying. It is scary how fast it will be once they inevitably improve on all the issues with it.

      Even worse for Ferrari only, RedBull seems to have a half decent engine in the back. Ferrari might find themselves last of the front runners in notime.

      1. I will wait for the next race before coming to any conclusion. Vettel said many things this weekend, in one other statement he claims that the car had less grip that when in testing, they just don’t know why.

        Besides, after his stop he was way too slow, Verstappen passed him very easily in a track that the delta needs to be 1.8s to overtake, and Charles closed a 13s gap and would also get by if he wasn’t told to keep position.

        My guess? Something is wrong on how the tires work on Ferrari. If the car is a good platform they will eventually figure it out.

        So I’ll say it’s premature to say they are in trouble, however if they gap is that big in Bahrain and China it will look like an uphill battle for them from there…

      2. Sorry, but Mercedes has a terrible car…. Really?

        They didn’t seem to have any problems riding the bumps over the weekend

      3. Absolutely no expert, but I always imagine modern day F1 cars to be like modern day jet fighters, fastest and most manoeuvrable when they’re on the edge. Obviously it’s up to a driver still, not a computer, to control them, but having a twitchier car that nonetheless produces more downforce when all the flows are working must be somewhat better in terms of potential than a stable car.

        If the issue is front aero design, could Ferrari adapt to something like the Alfa Romeo solution? May cost them a few races as they adapt but might be worth it. Or maybe too much of the rest of the car is designed around their own solution?

        1. @david-br I’m no expert either, but I don’t think you can compare the situations: A jet fighter is not aerodynamically unstable in the airflow sense, but in the center-of-gravity sense. COG is aft and the wing position is lower, so that it becomes more twitchy; if the COG is in a stable position, the system wants to return to the neutral position, making turns slower.

          For a race car, the overall job of the airflow is simply to press the tires to the ground, and try to do it with as little drag as possible. I’d think that airflow instabilities would make less downforce, not more. I can’t think of a way to use them to add downforce (maybe to decrease drag in some cases, but I’d think the loss of downforce and, worse, the unpredictability of the remaining downforce would make that a bad choice).

          1. @losd Thanks for that!

      4. Panagiotis Papatheodorou (@panagiotism-papatheodorou)
        18th March 2019, 17:13

        The issue seems to concern the front wing as well. Vettel had to brake in T4 during his Q3 run indicating a unstable front end since braking would allow him to take the corner a bit more sharply. If the rumours for a “safe” use of the engine is true then what I mentioned could be attribute to less wing on the car but I am not so sure.

    3. Well hell, let’s just call the season now and go home! ;)

      Seriously, you folks kill me with the pearl clutching, or alternately, the premature triumphalism. Ferrari aren’t doomed to come third yet, Gasly isn’t doomed to be a back marker, McClaren aren’t doomed to explode at every race, Haas are not doomed to lose their wheels all over every circuit, Hamilton isn’t going to suddenly fall into despair and lose every race to Bottas. It’s been ONE RACE. :) Even Williams could shock everyone and turn things around (but I wouldn’t put even a penny on it though, their issues are deeply ingrained, it’s not just about a bad car for them).

      Ferrari will go back home, look at the data, and figure it out. Just because an issue didn’t pop up in testing that did pop up in the first race, doesn’t mean they have a fundamentally bad car. They didn’t magically lose down force on a car that showed excellent down force in testing, and it didn’t suddenly have a dud of an engine. It’s too early to make such judgement.

      1. The one eternal constant is that Ferrari will always micromanage their drivers and despite what they say, they will never let them really race each other: or am I wrong.

      2. @lunaslide one of the very, very few intelligent comments I have seen on here today.

    4. Just having a guess here, but I reckon Ferrari will fix the problem. They spend up towards 500 Million PA on F1. After last yrs debacle losing again this yr not just to Merc but RB aswell would be untenable.

    5. Both Ferraris were consistently slower than Valtteri for most part of the race. Charles matched Valtteri in the second half to an extent. No wonder that the gap was huge at the close. Sebastian’s early pit stop was a mistake and it is also very evident as Charles with fresher tires was consistently faster than Vettel after his stop. Perhaps they should have waited and let Vettel go the softs instead of the medium. The same inference can be obtained if we compare max and Vettel. Perhaps C3 wasn’t the best tire to be on.

    6. Can you imagine a team following a path of developing that is wrong without realising it and losing a complete winter over it or at best a few months? Jeez that would hurt.

      I’ve this déjà vu feeling, I wonder what it is…

    7. Last year they seemed to know what was wrong after Melbourne and correct it and instantly they had a decent car. They then managed to unravel that completely later on with a bad development direction… but that’s a different point.

      This year they had a good car that’s still a ‘good car’ – but clearly has an issue somewhere. But they don’t know where it is or what’s wrong. Maybe it’ll be in the data, maybe not. Maybe it’s a quick fix – maybe not. And all the while Ferrari are tinkering with their toolboxes trying to make their car go again it’s not like Red Bull or Mercedes will stand still and let them catch up is it? I think it’s fair to say both Merc/Red Bull are faster and superior at in-season development than Ferrari usually are.

      Bahrain’s got to be the test. If Ferrari are improved there you could argue it was characteristic of Melbourne or they fixed the problem. If they’re still adrift… I doubt they’ll catch up at all.

    8. What is the most disturbing in my opinion is that Ferrari team doesn’t know why they’re slow, Mercedes doesn’t know why they’re quick. Thousand people involved in design and production of the car don’t know why the car behaves in specific way in certain conditions. Well, sorry lads, I’m not buying it. Either you’re fools or we are fools to believe that. There is no third option on this one.

      1. Again, no expert (see above for proof) but car design and speed is all around air turbulence (fluid dynamics) and fluid dynamics is one of the most complex areas of mathematics as far as I remember. So difficult even for the real experts.

      2. It’s not disturbing at all, every team knows they are quick. They are just in the dark about how quick in comparison to their rivals. And that is something they won’t know over and over and over again from track to track just like last season.

        This rubbish about Spain being the acid test and if your car is good there it’ll be good everywhere has proved to be nonsense for the last 10 years.

    9. Panagiotis Papatheodorou (@panagiotism-papatheodorou)
      18th March 2019, 17:11

      I definitely think Vettel had a car-related issue. He was close with Hamilton (gap was around 1.5s) and suddenly lost all pace. He asked Ferrari why the car was slow and there was no answer. A person on Reddit has a theory on that and it is definitely worth checking out. Let us not forget that Kimi reported sudden loss of power after Q3 as well as Grosjean. Vettel was only reaching 280 kmh on the straights way lower than Leclerc, Hamilton and Vertstappen. Here is the link for those interested:

      1. Thanks heaps for that link to the reddit post. Very enlightening on how complicated the of reduction in electrical deployment could be perhaps due to the ICE overheating, inter alia. Everyone has been saying for years that these hybrid power suppies are complex, but I never quite grasped how complex until reading that reddit.

    10. F1oSaurus (@)
      18th March 2019, 17:27

      A stable and easy to drive car usually isn’t the fastest. Should be easier on the tyres though.

    11. I don’t recall Ferrari being quickest in the first 3 races of last year.

    12. Reports are that the tyres are stiffer this year, making it difficult to get them working properly on slow-corner tracks, and there’s also Ferrari’s front wing design with reduced surface.

    13. I had sceptism about Leclerc but I have to admid he did a great job. Respect.

    14. Something went wrong for them…

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