Feature F1 Unlocked
MONDAY MORNING DEBRIEF: Why Ferrari's big upgrades didn't deliver the goods in Barcelona
Carlos Sainz, in the heavily updated Ferrari, began the Spanish Grand Prix in a promising position, starting alongside the pole-sitting Red Bull of Max Verstappen on the front row. But, despite a closely-fought start, the Spaniard finished the race four places and 46s behind.
The Ferrari had lost an average of 0.7s per lap to the victorious Verstappen and had been overtaken on track by both Mercedes cars and the second Red Bull of Sergio Perez.
A totally new sidepod layout, and accompanying new floor, was on the Ferrari and after a back-to-back comparison with the original spec in FP1 (when Sainz ran the new car and Charles Leclerc the old), Ferrari committed to the update on both cars for the rest of the weekend.
It has brought a significant downforce increase to the rear of the car, and the hope was that it would improve the inconsistency and sensitivity of the rear.
But around the long, fast corners of the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, the performance of all the cars was dominated even more than usual by how well they worked in harmony with the tyres, specifically the front tyres.
This has been a Ferrari shortcoming all season, but that was punished much more heavily on race day than at other tracks simply because of this circuit’s layout, especially so now that the previous final slow section of the lap has been replaced by a super-fast and long final turn.
Driving to the degradation of the front-left tyre, the Ferrari’s race pace was nowhere near that of the two Mercedes W14s, both of which overtook on track and proceeded to pull away. Ferrari had tried to defend against Hamilton in the first stint by bringing Sainz in as early as Lap 15 for his first stop.
While that delayed the inevitable, it just increased the pain for later in the race as Sainz had to make his remaining sets of tyres last far longer – as Hamilton and George Russell ran for an extra nine and 10 laps respectively before making their first stops.
Normally, a car pitting nine laps earlier than a closely-following car would be expected to pull out a good gap, on account of running those nine laps on much newer rubber. Yet, such was the Ferrari’s tyre degradation, Sainz’s pace on his new mediums was no greater than that of Hamilton on his old softs, enabling Hamilton to rejoin still right on the Ferrari’s tail.
Now on his much newer rubber, Hamilton was able to make a straightforward pass on track soon afterwards. That early Sainz first stop only exaggerated the pace difference later in the race between the Ferrari and the cars of Russell and Perez, both of whom came past without difficulty.
It was notable that the Ferrari was running with significantly lower wing levels than either Red Bull or Mercedes. This contributed towards flattering Sainz’s qualifying pace (the sister car of Leclerc had an as-yet-undefined suspected mechanical problem and went out in Q1) but would have contributed to punishing the tyre more on race day.
Knowing how demanding the track is of the tyres, why Ferrari chose this level of wing is the interesting point. Its ride quality over the kerbs was poor, just as it had been in Monaco last week, and around Barcelona that was inducing bouncing in the car in qualifying. Running more downforce may only have worsened that.
Even with the relatively small wing, Ferrari may have been forced to surrender yet more downforce by raising the car to control the bouncing experienced in the practices.
Alternatively, if the car cannot be balanced around a bigger rear wing and understeered excessively because the front could not generate enough downforce, that would have punished the front tyres even more severely in the race.
At the Ferrari’s current state of development, the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya simply exposed its weaknesses more than at other tracks. “I think the updates we brought have worked,” summarised Sainz after the race, “but we have introduced them at maybe the worst track for us.”
It would probably be a mistake therefore to judge Ferrari’s development progress on the car’s performance around Barcelona.