Following three consecutive Mercedes 1-2 since the beginning of the season, it is fair to start wondering: where does Ferrari’s deficit lie? Leaving Vettel and Leclerc’s teammate relationship aside for once, let’s just analyse the SF90’s see-sawing performance in depth.
The disappointing displays at Melbourne and Shanghai reveal that Ferrari’s problems are deeply rooted in its initial project. The Maranello-based team emerged as a strong victory contender on Friday in China, having annihilated Mercedes on the straights. However, as Auto Motor und Sport reports, the full lead of 0.7 seconds out of the full-throttle passages was lost again in turns 2, 3, 6, 9, 11 and 14.
On Saturday, Mercedes managed to halve the gap on the straights while keeping its advantage in the slow corners. The Silver Arrows turned on the engine in Q3, but Ferrari is usually able to counter that, as per in Bahrain. Not even the rear wing for more downforce, the higher air resistance of the wing used on Saturday or the headwind could turn things around for Ferrari.
At Mercedes, it is assumed that Ferrari turns down the engine in qualifying for stability reasons, other than to safeguard it following their recent reliability glitches. The intercooler appears to be working unequally on different spots, as some areas appear in need of more cooling and others require the opposite.
Vettel’s team radio at the end of Q3 could perhaps prove this hypothesis right: "We had it, we had it. We know why, though. The car was tricky, but there was a bit more. But we know why, grazie.” Was he addressing a technical problem or the fact that Ferrari had turned the power down?
Neither of the two, according to Vettel, who said that his radio message referred to the headwind, as Mercedes found itself in a more favorable situation: "The Mercedes have just caught the wind."
What is very striking from Ferrari is the lack of significant upgrades since the beginning of the season, whereas Mercedes has brought a great deal of updates to the table. Does Ferrari need to fix the car or just all the parameters to make it work properly?
The latter suits Vettel’s words after the Chinese GP, as -using the Ronspeak- it turns out to be an “unlock the potential” kind of situation. “We have a good car, but we are not yet able to get it in the window to make it look good. We are not there yet, where we have been in the test drives before. We did not have the speed of the Mercedes in China. But that's nothing that shocks us. We just have to put together our puzzle pieces optimally. "
The four-time World Champion explicitly hailed the "very strong engine" but continues: “We have to get the car in the window, as it has succeeded at Charles in Bahrain. Mercedes seems to hit this window anytime and anywhere right now.”
Mattia Binotto believes limitations come along with certain tracks and sets Ferrari’s priority: “First comes the laptime, then reliability”.
In fact, a Mercedes-inspired solutions is on its way: “Such a rear wing as that of Mercedes, is in work." It will probably make his debut in Barcelona, where the car would eventually require a correction on the front wing, in order to balance the car. As Schmidt reports: “That could not be so easy with Ferrari”. As it was feared before the start of the season, the nature of the SF90 and the W10 is completely different. Therefore, if either of the teams starts emulating the other, this will compromise the entire development of the car. Each tweak would imply having more changes to re-balance the whole structure. This is why Ferrari’s emulation is doomed to fail and Mercedes is set to gain even more ground through in-season development, as it did last year.
There is also one more piece adding to the puzzle: the Pirellis. Vettel suspects that the reason for the loss of grip in the narrower passages is in the tyre pressure and temperature. Therefore, more work needs to be done in order to achieve a better understanding of Pirelli’s new tyres.
Mercedes engineers share Ferrari’s point: “In Bahrain, we could not make up for lost time on the corners because Ferrari was better off in the corners. Maybe because the long straights left the tyre enough time to cool down. If you have more downforce than us, you're in a better position. If there are any problems with the drive unit that force you to take power back, you lose too much lap time.”