Why Ferrari hit a new low at Spa Francorchamps

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Ferrari’s disappointing season got even worse at the Belgian Grand Prix as both drivers failed to qualify in the top ten and failed to score points in the race. At the end of 44 sobering laps of Spa-Francorchamps, Sebastian Vettel was 13th and Charles Leclerc 14th, with both drivers outperformed by the Alfa Romeo of Kimi Raikkonen, which uses a customer Ferrari engine.

Just one year ago, Ferrari had by far the fastest car at Spa-Francorchamps and Charles Leclerc took his first career victory at the circuit. So how have things gone so badly wrong at the sport’s biggest team in the last 12 months and is there any chance of a turnaround any time soon?

Where does Ferrari go from here?

The Belgian Grand Prix was Ferrari’s worst weekend in recent memory, leading to questions about how long the team’s recovery will take.
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Why was Ferrari so slow at Spa?

The Belgian Grand Prix confirmed a couple of home truths about this year’s Ferrari. First of all, it has an engine down on power and secondly it has an aerodynamic package that is relatively inefficient.

The first part we already knew. All Ferrari-powered teams have been struggling this year and it was no surprise to see them towards the back of the field again at Spa. But the inefficiency of Ferrari’s aero package compared to its customers was more of a surprise, and on Sunday it left Vettel and Leclerc fighting Haas and Williams drivers for position at the back of the field.

So what do we mean by inefficient downforce? We know that all teams aim to add downforce to their cars to improve grip through corners, but the real target is to add downforce without adding a significant amount of drag. The more downforce you can add without reaching a compromising drag level on the straights, the more downforce you can run on the car and the faster you go through corners.

Ferrari spent most of the weekend languishing outside the top ten. Clive Mason – Formula 1/Formula 1 via Getty Images

Ferrari’s biggest weakness last year was a lack of downforce compared to Mercedes. The car was incredibly fast on the straights (to the tune of 0.7s per lap over the Mercedes) but would routinely lose that advantage in the corners. When Ferrari was designing this year’s car, it was doing so based on the power levels it had last year. As a result, it was easy to pile the downforce on the car without worrying too much about drag because its monster of a power unit could be relied upon to keep it competitive on the straights.

But over the winter, Ferrari’s engine was subject to an FIA investigation, leading to a settlement between the Italian team and the sport’s governing body. A series of rule clarifications since then have cost Ferrari a significant chunk of horsepower as it has had to modify its engine to become compliant. As a result, a car that was built around the assumption of a certain level of power is now having to compete with a lot less.

The problem is that Ferrari has been pursuing its current aerodynamic philosophy for several years, so to try and turn things around in the space of a few months is pretty much impossible. The luxury of all that extra horsepower allowed Ferrari to make gains over recent years, but now that the luxury has been removed the deficiencies in its overall package have been laid bare.

Over the weekend, rival teams, who are clearly still bitter about Ferrari’s approach in recent years, were quick to flag this theory and question Ferrari’s priorities.

“It’s obviously very tough for them but I think their focus has been in the wrong areas in previous years,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said, “which is why they obviously seem to be struggling a little with whatever was in that agreement.”

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff added: “At the end, one must question the priorities that have been set in recent times and where the lack of performance comes from. Overall, nobody from the fans and the Ferrari people deserve such a result.”

The nature of the Spa-Francorchamps circuit, with its long straights and high-speed corners, will always expose a draggy car. The trade-off between downforce and drag is a question the engineers face every time they arrive at Spa and teams tend to bring two types of rear wing to give themselves the option of either low downforce or high downforce.

But whichever way Ferrari went with its setup, it didn’t seem to find the benefits. The car was slow on the straights, where you want a skinny rear wing to limit drag, and slow in the middle sector, where a high-downforce package pays its reward.

In the second session of qualifying, in which both Vettel and Leclerc were knocked out, Ferrari was losing 1.2s to Mercedes in the middle sector of the lap alone. That would be a massive performance deficit around the entire lap, but in a single sector it is truly devastating.

What’s more, it gained none of that deficit back on the straights where its top speed was a match for the relative high-downforce runners of Mercedes and Red Bull, but 6km/h-7km/h slower through the speed trap than the low-downforce runners like Renault and McLaren. On top of all of that, and most likely linked in some way, was an inability to get the tyres in the right operating window.

Ferrari has been competing in the lower reaches of the midfield for most of 2019. Mark Thompson/Getty Images

During Friday practice, the drivers reported that the car was incredibly difficult to drive, and although solutions were found to make Leclerc and Vettel more comfortable, the core issue never went away. So while it was clear Spa was never going to suit the SF1000 due to the characteristics of the car, the additional tyre issues combined to leave the team struggling to make it out of the bottom five on the grid.

“We know the performance this year is not good, we don’t want to live with it, but we know there is a limit to what we can do short-term,” Ferrari sporting director Laurent Mekies said after qualifying. “We also know that this type of track is not going to go in the direction of our car.

“That said we are still very unhappy with the way the car was working on Friday with regards to tyres and balance. Luckily we got that back, but we certainly lost time in the meantime trying to get that sorted and we need to understand why that happened.”

After the race, Binotto alluded to the underlying tyre issues as well as the fundamental lack of aero efficiency and engine performance.

“Power and aero efficiency is the first part of the question, but that’s not sufficient to explain our performance of this weekend, because anyway I don’t think that battling with our customer teams somehow is where we are expecting to be,” he said. “There is something more we are looking at which at the moment we do not understand.”

Rivals’ anger

Ferrari’s rivals remain upset at how the FIA’s settlement with Ferrari was handled. Robert Szaniszló/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ahead of the season, the confidential settlement between Ferrari and the FIA looked set to be a key political battle ground. Seven of F1’s 10 teams accused the FIA of a lack of transparency over the issue, but the cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix in March put the situation into a wider perspective.

All of a sudden, the focus was on the health and safety of those in the sport and how it would be possible make sure all ten teams survived the financial hit that would inevitably come with a global pandemic.

But the issue hasn’t been forgotten entirely and Ferrari’s struggles at Spa this year, just 12 months after Leclerc won the race last season, have brought the issue back to the forefront. Ferrari took three wins last year, two of which came on the power-sensitive circuits of Spa and Monza, and its engine performance was a key factor in how it managed to hold off Red Bull for second place in the constructors’ championship. That second place finish was tied to a significant financial reward under F1’s prize money structure, making it even harder to forgive and forget.

“The whole thing has left quite a sour taste,” Horner said. “I mean, obviously you can draw your own conclusions from Ferrari’s current performance, but, yeah, there are races that we should have won last year arguably if they had run with the engine they have now that seems to be quite different to the performance that they had last year.”

Mercedes finished ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ standings last year, but team boss Wolff says there was still a significant impact on Mercedes as it stretched its engine department to the limit trying to match its Italian rivals.

“It’s difficult to say because I don’t want to put any more oil on the fire, but we were really stretched so much last year and the year before that, so much that we suffered,” Wolff said. “We lost two people in terms of being at the end of their … how can I say it, at the end of their health. And this is why I would probably follow Christian’s comment.”

The FIA has said it is willing to make the details of the Ferrari settlement public but needs the agreement of the Italian team. At the start of this year, Binotto made clear that would not happen as there is intellectual property in the agreement that Ferrari is not willing to share.

What next for Ferrari?

JOHN THYS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In the immediate future, Ferrari heads to the Italian Grand Prix at Monza, another race it won last year. The power deficit is likely to be visible again and there’s every chance the team will struggle to score points for a second weekend in a row.

One legacy of last year’s engine row is a new ruling this weekend that effectively outlaws qualifying-specific engine modes. The FIA’s job of detecting a breach in the engine regulations is made more difficult if teams can cycle through different modes as it limits the amount of data available in each mode for analysis. By staying in one engine mode for both qualifying and the race, the data available is more uniform, making it easier to detect a breach.

Ferrari, which last year had a particularly potent qualifying mode, has enjoyed little to no difference between its engine settings in qualifying and the race. As a result, Binotto is hopeful the change to the regulations will help peg back Ferrari’s rivals on Saturdays.

“Monza is a circuit where power performance is important and certainly where we are not the best,” Binotto said. “There will be a new Technical Directive in place for the qualifying and it may affect some of the teams [more than others].

“I will be curious to see how much, which team, I think it will be interesting in that respect. It’s a circuit which is high power sensitive, especially it changes a bit the balance of competitiveness in the quali itself.”

But even a good performance at the Italian Grand Prix will not save Ferrari’s blushes this season. The combined anger over the general performance of the biggest name in F1 this year and the serious questions about the legality of last year’s engine has led to questions over who is to blame.

“Who is responsible?” Binotto said on Sunday night. “The entire team is responsible — myself as team principal first.

“Am I the right man or not, that’s not for me to answer. How long will it take [to return to the front]? I think if you look back in all the winning cycles that have been set, it’s always many years, there are no silver bullets in F1.

“Patience and stability is required.”

Part of F1’s COVID rules package is a freeze on performance-based engine upgrades until the end of the year to save costs. That means Ferrari is stuck with the same fundamental issue until the end of 2020 at the very least.

Another part of the cost saving package is the use of the same chassis next year. Ferrari is able to tweak the aerodynamics of the car but major changes to the chassis are limited under a token system and it is unlikely it will allow the flexibility for Ferrari to turn its situation around.

As a result, we could see Ferrari remain a midfield team until at least 2022 when a new set of regulations will present an opportunity to start from scratch.

“The engine is frozen this season, so there is nothing we can do on that, and we are developing for next season — it is progressing on the dyno at the moment,” Binotto said. “As well we have some chassis restrictions.

“So what’s the plan for us? The main plan is focusing on the next season, as well as 2021 and certainly 2022. But I think in order to do well on the next seasons we need to understand the weaknesses of today and that’s why we are addressing them.”

Source: espn.com

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