Ferrari will bring its first significant package of upgrades since pre-season testing to the Spanish Grand Prix, with high hopes of clawing back the apparent disadvantage to steadfast upgraders Red Bull.
Even though the Italian team continue to lead the drivers’ and constructors’ standings, the team believes it is firmly behind Red Bull at this stage of the season when it comes to the development race.
Red Bull has taken a vastly different approach to Ferrari with its development strategy by introducing a plethora of updates over the course of the last few races, with Ferrari going without any upgrades of note since testing. It will however bring its first major performance upgrade in Spain, the traditional European leg of the season opener and traditional place to introduce considerable changes.
Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto’s relative paranoia is evident through his “concern” over the frequency that “Red Bull are developing considering the budget cap.” The team reportedly says that they intend on highlighting the expenditure that each of its rivals spends on R&D in what is quite possibly the latest in a long line of inter-team political disputes.
“I don’t think that the difference [between Red Bull and Ferrari] is huge,” Binotto says. “It is a matter of maximum a couple of tenths. We should not forget that in qualifying [in Miami] we locked-out the front row.”
“So, in qualifying we had a better performance compared to the Red Bull. Overall, in a weekend I don’t think there is much difference between the Red Bull and the Ferrari.”
Ferrari were running a higher downforce setup than planned in the Miami Grand Prix, but one which couldn’t make up for the straight line speed shortfall to Red Bull by improving things in the slow corners. This is where the Scuderia was previously quicker than Red Bull but couldn’t string together in Miami, and fundamentally where the team’s worries were proclaimed.
Ahead of the Miami weekend, Ferrari made a change to the shape of its front trackrods within the complex suspension assembly. Even though the suspension is thought of as a mechanical area of the car, it is in fact crucial in directing the airflow coming off of the front wing towards the diffuser and rear wing via the new Venturi tunnels and re-shaped sidepods for 2022.
However, the nature of this ‘new era’ of technical regulations makes introducing any aerodynamic upgrade a much riskier affair than previously. There’s the natural unknowns that come with a brand new rule set and ‘type’ of car, teamed this time with the infamous porpoising phenomenon and how it, as something so critical to performance, can not be picked up in a driver-in-loop simulator or wind tunnel.
It is a factor that Ferrari has managed to successfully get on top of and work with in order to claw back what seems to be the closest to the absolute maximum lap time the car is capable of than any of their rivals, whereas the likes of Mercedes are at the opposite end of the scale.
FP1 and FP2 in Miami showed what appeared to be the closest Mercedes has got to their W13’s true potential. It had somehow stumbled into a mystery window where porpoising was seamlessly negated on the Friday.
However it would be short-lived jubilation as the car not only returned to its ignominious ways on the Saturday – when the team lowered the ride height in FP3 – but exhibited bouncing and tyre working window issues arguably worse than ever before.
“As a matter of fact the data sometimes doesn’t show what the drivers tell us,” Mercedes CEO and team principal Toto Wolff explained after a weekend of “mystery” in Miami.
“Certainly they have their hands full with a car that is not at all comfortable or nice to drive, or predictable to drive, but the data doesn’t show these swings. We haven’t had this situation before in any of the years that it just didn’t correlate what we see on the screens with what the driver feels, and that’s making it even more difficult.”
Therefore every new upgrade brought to the track for the first time is a nerve-wracking time for teams as it could very easily have an adverse effect and make the car slower by introducing or worsening porpoising. This is something Ferrari needs to be seriously careful about when you consider how their F1-75 behaves.
It bounces down the straights a great deal when close to terminal velocity, evident most noticeably on the new flat out section in Melbourne, but ceases quickly when braking to slower speeds for the corners.
This is something Mercedes have yet to get on top of, with the car seemingly continuing to bounce into Australia’s Turns 9 and 10 and Miami’s Turns 4 and 5 – making the car highly unpredictable and perilously reducing the level of grip on offer ten-fold.
Mercedes are no longer in the all-knowing, full control position over every possible intricacy of their car – previously able to control every variable and plan almost every possible outcome with ease. Instead residing in a situation of huge unknowns with limited scope for furthering understanding – the ban on in-season testing, the budget cap and impossible nature of simulating porpoising in the simulator or wind tunnel sees to that.
There’s such a fine line between the two directions of fate here that we can ultimately assume the Ferrari is somewhat teetering on the edge of vexation, which any change could so deftly turn on its head. If presented with this dreaded situation, a swift return to the previous guise would hopefully be enough to eradicate the problem but then you’re back to square one, having spent a portion of your restricted budget on something that has come to nothing.
It’s the stiffness of the rear suspension, and in a roundabout way the stiffness of the rear tyres, that is key to what degree the rear ride height changes when under load at high speed. That is what ultimately impacts porpoising as teams try to run the cars as low to the ground as possible for the low and medium speed corners, but high enough off of the ground to not stall in high speed corners.
Ferrari’s Barcelona upgrades are set to be focused around a new floor which it hopes will reduce the porpoising which does still hold the car back in places. They hope they’ll be able to run the car lower to the ground thanks to this update, but stepping into the aforementioned unknown that is manipulating porpoising will be very important to get right.
This is most likely why Ferrari chose to take their car and security guards to Monza for a top-secret test fitted with the new components. Definitely a wise call.
There is also ostensibly a new rear wing being readied for Barcelona, which in itself could push the car over that not-so-distant porpoising edge by increasing the top speed capabilities of the car – to bring them up to the level that Red Bull have at their disposal.
Ferrari will have hope in their hearts that these upgrades bridge the newly-formed gap to Red Bull and their lightweight RB18, but getting on top of the bouncing is a tall order without serious consideration, knowhow and testing. Even after a day at the high-speed Monza circuit, the reality of a race weekend can often be beset with limitless variables during sessions and data gathering that can be easily disrupted.
We will wait and see how the development race plays out throughout the year, but do not count any of the top teams out of the championship race just yet.