Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: What on earth happened to the pace of Ferrari and Mercedes in Brazil?
Max Verstappen won his 52nd career Grand Prix at Interlagos on Sunday, putting him one ahead of Alain Prost and just two behind Sebastian Vettel. He had every reason to be happy.
As did Lando Norris after finishing a strong second for McLaren, even briefly going wheel-to-wheel with Verstappen, this after having set pole in the Saturday Shootout. Aston Martin’s Fernando Alonso delivered one of the best drives of his long career in fending off Sergio Perez’s Red Bull for third in a thrilling dice, which had the crowd on its feet.
For Ferrari and Mercedes there was no such satisfaction, each suffering the weakest weekend of their respective seasons. Both were uncompetitive and both had only one car still running at the finish, with Carlos Sainz’s Ferrari sixth, 50s adrift of Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes eighth, a further 12s behind.
Charles Leclerc’s retirement before the race had even started was due to a mechanical component failure, which robbed the hydraulic pump of pressure, momentarily cutting out the engine and losing the power steering, a combination which put the Ferrari into the Turn 7 barriers on the lap to the grid.
About the only bright spot in Ferrari’s weekend was Leclerc’s second-fastest qualifying time. But this was not representative of the car’s general competitive level.
It was set in the exceptionally gusty conditions of Q3 just prior to the arrival of a major storm, where track position ended up being super important. In the more settled conditions of the Saturday Shootout, the Ferraris were seventh and ninth fastest, around 0.5s off the pace, albeit on used tyres.
Sainz did not have the luxury of new soft tyres, having used up the full allocation just in getting through to SQ3. Leclerc had a set but preferred to keep them back for the Grand Prix. The Sprint revealed one of the reasons for Ferrari’s difficulties, as both drivers were having to lift and coast extensively to keep the temperatures of their power units in check.
Ferrari had not opened out the engine cover bodywork anything like as much as in Mexico, running much smaller cooling gills. While this helps the aerodynamic performance, the cooling level was insufficient for a hot Interlagos. The conservative pace this imposed on Leclerc and Sainz saw them finish the Sprint in a respective fifth and eighth, half-a-minute behind in just 24 laps.
The cooling issue played its part in Ferrari’s thinking in retaining a new set of softs for Leclerc’s race on Sunday. Given that he had qualified on the front row, it was hoped that the new set might enable him to beat Verstappen off the grid to at least give him some clear air at the start. The mechanical failure obviously made that irrelevant.
Things were not quite so marginal with the cooling for Sainz on Sunday. The ambient temperature was a little lower and furthermore the team had also been able to increase the radiator inlet openings. The storm at the end of Friday’s Q3, which saw the session eventually red-flagged, triggered the regulation clause of a change in climatic conditions between qualifying and race.
However, the changes permitted do not extend to modifying the bodywork – and so the relatively small cooling gills on the engine cover remained.
The clutch shims on Sainz’s car were changed under parc ferme prior to Sunday’s race but the clutch problem remained, giving him a bad start and losing him positions. He was later able to pass the two Mercedes, but that was a reflection of their struggles rather than any great pace in the Ferrari.
The Silver Arrows suffered severe rear tyre degradation in the race after showing quite well in the early laps. Toto Wolff described the team’s weekend as the worst he has ever seen. “I wouldn’t be surprised if when we analyse the cars in the next few days, we find out there was a mechanical issue, the way we set them up,” he added.
Given the events of Austin two races ago when Hamilton was disqualified from second for excessive plank wear, the team did run quite a conservative ride height here. The reduction in underbody downforce was compensated for by the use of a big rear wing, but at a cost in drag. Hamilton radioed after being overtaken by Pierre Gasly, that despite being in the Alpine’s DRS zone he was still being left behind by it on the straight.
“We ran the car too high,” admitted Wolff. “But that’s something that you probably carry. It wasn’t the main reason for an absolute off-weekend in terms of performance. There was something very fundamentally wrong, mechanically. It’s not a rear wing, and it’s not the car being too high because we’re talking a millimetre or two. That’s performance but it’s not the explanation for a total off like we saw.”
George Russell was retired from ninth place after his power unit was showing signs of imminent failure. This was due to be that engine’s final race anyway as its mileage limit was approaching. Because of this he was left out longer than would have been the case if the PU had needed to be used again, in the vain hope he might limp to the finish.
Things can surely only get better for both teams in Las Vegas.