An unprecedented five one-two finishes and a near perfect points score at the quarter-season mark — has Mercedes as good as won the 2019 Formula One championship with 16 rounds to go?
The Spanish Grand Prix is billed as a marker of a championship’s competitive health. The teams and drivers know the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya inside out given its second life as a preseason testing venue, which means the variables of maladjusted set-up and even driver experience to a certain degree are neutralised. It’s the purest test of machinery on the F1 calendar.
So the fact that Ferrari was nowhere near the pace all weekend is extremely concerning, and not just for the state of the championship — the Scuderia’s preseason testing data from this circuit was so convincing that even Mercedes was sure it would be starting the year on the back foot. That the picture has been reversed, and then some, will exercise Italian minds, perhaps all the way until Abu Dhabi.
What’s gone wrong? How is it that just five rounds after predicting a Ferrari-led battle for the championship we’re staring down the barrel of what could be the most one-sided year in recent F1 history?
1. Did the pundits simply get it wrong?
This is the most popular theory in some punter circles, and while the preseason predictions were ultimately wide of the mark, suggestions that analyses were somehow negligent of gratuitous Mercedes sandbagging or unduly optimistic in Ferrari’s favour are unfounded.
The reality is that every consideration of the data suggested Ferrari had a decisive edge, and this is true not only of the media and other punditry who observed the cars on-track but also of the teams, which all believed the red car would be the quickest in the opening part of the season.
What Mercedes’ dominant start to the year illustrates instead is the amount of progress the German team has made in the intervening months, and on this count a comparison of best preseason times with this weekend’s qualifying results is revealing.
Despite using tyres two steps harder on a warmer track generating more wear, Mercedes’s pole time at the grand prix was 0.8 seconds quicker than its preseason best. Ferrari, on the other hand, remained relatively steady, while most of the rest of the grid lost between two and five tenths.
In real terms Mercedes has taken substantial steps forward — Red Bull Racing improved by a similar magnitude, dismissing claims of immense Mercedes sandbagging in the process — while Ferrari has made only a small one. It’s therefore not so much that preseason analyses were wrong; rather the ensuing forecasts underestimated the rate of early season development.
2. Ferrari has hit a developmental dead end
Understanding the development race neatly segues into the question of why Ferrari has failed to build on its solid preseason foundations.
The aerodynamics regulations changed over the off-season, changing the way the front wings interacts with the rest of the car, and it’s interesting, perhaps even now ironic, to recall that Mercedes was asked whether its slow start would require it to abandon its aero philosophy to pursue that adopted by Ferrari.
Notable is that Red Bull Racing concluded a design similar to Mercedes, and if we return the steps made between testing and the Spanish Grand Prix, the Milton Keynes-based team appears to have found similar gains, enabling the two teams to leave Ferrari behind.
Noteworthy too is a BBC column on the divergent philosophies. Writing before the Australian Grand Prix, the ‘secret aerodynamicist’ — an anonymous current employee of one of the teams — suggested Ferrari’s design “could … limit the amount of total downforce it can create” by baking an aero imbalance as the team attempts to add downforce through the season.
We’ve seen only four rounds worth of development, but already it appears Ferrari is lagging behind Mercedes and Red Bull Racing in terms of progress. Not only does it appear to be down on grip — evidenced by the SF90 losing time to Ferrari in every corner in Spain — but it appeared to be prone to understeer in the final sector, a key giveaway the BBC’s theory could be correct.
“It will take some days to really have a proper analysis and try to understand,” Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto said. “It’s a matter of balance, a matter of downforce — it’s a matter of maybe even car concept.”
3. Mercedes is on another level
So Ferrari has been outdeveloped and perhaps even engineered itself into a corner with its aerodynamic philosophy, but the Spanish Grand Prix also underlined that the Scuderia also crucially lacks the finesse in execution it needs to credibly mount a title challenge.
That team orders have been a recurring frustration for Ferrari is a prime example of the pit wall lacking crucial race fitness. Each of its drivers lost precious time behind the other as the team dithered making straightforward decisions to have the faster following car pass, allowing Max Verstappen to escape further up the road with third place.
At times the team even seemed to be feeding Vettel and Leclerc conflicting information, putting Vettel in a position to tell the engineers what to do.
No such issues plague Mercedes, the only team to win back-to-back championships across a major regulation change.
Contrasting with Ferrari, the German marque’s drivers are dealt with consistently in a strategic sense and seemingly every eventuality is planned for, in-race and off-track.
The most important question now is how integral Ferrari’s flaws are to its 2019 campaign. Only with that answer can it attempt to lift and salvage what’s left of its season.
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