Let’s review Ferrari’s 2019 F1 car, the SF90. From pre-season testing to winning the last three Grand Prix, Scuderia Ferrari has come alive in the second half of the season. You’d have to go back 11 years for the last time Ferrari won three successive grands prix.
With victories in the last three races in Belgium, Italy and Singapore, the Scuderia has achieved a feat not witnessed since its last constructors’ title triumph in 2008 when Kimi Raikkonen and Felipe Massa won four in a row early that season.
And it’s only the second time since the introduction in 2014 of the current turbocharged hybrid power unit era that Mercedes has not stood on the top step of the podium at three consecutive Grand Prix, as was the case at the start of last year.
So how has Ferrari suddenly usurped Mercedes by producing the best car on the grid, and resulted in Sebastian Vettel ending his 392-day winless drought by taking the chequered flag in Singapore, spearheading the first one-two by any team at the Marina Bay Street circuit?
If you go back to pre-season there were signs then that Ferrari’s 2019 F1 car would provide Mercedes with a more robust challenge than has previously been the case.
After the first day of pre-season testing, a time when drivers are normally far more circumspect when it comes to evaluating the performance and potential of their car, Vettel declared the SF90 to be “very close to perfection”.
Heading into the opening race in Australia a few weeks later, the suggestion was Ferrari was fastest. It soon became apparent that was far from the case.
Yes, Ferrari had their moments in the opening few races. Charles Leclerc should have won in the second race in Bahrain but for an engine issue late on, and arguably should have been on pole two races later in Azerbaijan only to hit a wall during qualifying.
Overall, though, the Mercedes concept had developed into the more all-around racer, primarily due to the comparative designs of the front wing.
With all wings 20cms wider this year under new regulations in an attempt to allow cars to follow more closely, and in turn improve overtaking, Ferrari’s philosophy was diametrically opposed to that of Mercedes.
Ferrari opted for an inboard-loaded concept, having a positive impact on outwash to improve aero but countered by the amount of downforce that can be produced, while Mercedes preferred outboard, offering it the possibility of greater downforce, providing it could find the right balance between the front and rear wings.
It is arguably why Ferrari was quicker in testing as its solution was able to hit the ground running, while Mercedes needed time to find a balance that would allow it to keep applying downforce.
Team principal Mattia Binotto made clear after Mercedes’ dominant start to the season Ferrari would not be changing its front-wing philosophy, insisting that while it was “a different concept to Mercedes…it doesn’t mean we have achieved the maximum of its concept”.
He added there was a need to find a car that “is well balanced”, with “performance in medium, high speed and low speed – and what we are lacking is the optimum in all conditions”.
That lack of balance has been the undoing of Vettel who has struggled this year compared to Leclerc, who has been more comfortable with the car’s quirks and foibles compared to his more experienced, four-time champion team-mate.
That is despite Ferrari possessing – as it has done for just over a year now – the most dominant power unit on the grid.
In pitching up at the Spa Francorchamps circuit in August, where Mercedes unveiled its new Spec 3 system, Ferrari’s advantage appeared to have increased, with the difference eight-to-10 miles per hour along the high-speed Kemmel Straight.
One reason is that Mercedes erred on the side of caution during the race, turning the power down following a failure with the power unit in the Racing Point of Sergio Perez in practice and Robert Kubica’s Williams in the first period of qualifying.
At the following race in Monza, where Ferrari introduced its own power unit upgrade, and where Mercedes was able to run its Spec 3 at full power without fear of failure, the Scuderia narrowly edged the qualifying clash, with Leclerc ahead of Lewis Hamilton by just 0.039secs.
A captivating battle ensued as Leclerc repelled the challenges of first Hamilton, and then his team-mate Valtteri Bottas to take a famous win, and back-to-back triumphs after edging out the former at Spa.
That, though, was anticipated to be as good as it would get for the rest of Ferrari’s 2019 F1 car. Barely a soul gave the SF90 any hope around Singapore’s high-downforce 23-turn street track.
Certainly not when you consider at similar circuits, Vettel was eight-tenths-of-a-second adrift of Hamilton in qualifying in Monaco, and Leclerc almost half-a-second down on the leading Mercedes in Bottas at the Hungaroring.
Ferrari, though, had an ace up its sleeve, introducing a significant upgrade that included a new floor, diffuser and rear wing, and significantly, a solution to the aforementioned front-wing issues, with the addition of ‘nostrils’ and a cape to the nose. The latter element being pioneered by Mercedes and used by a number of teams this season, with Ferrari finally following suit.
The effects on front-end downforce and airflow, in conjunction with the other new parts, were eye-opening as Leclerc conjured the qualifying shock of the season to claim pole by almost two-tenths of a second to Hamilton.
Throw in the optimum strategy call during the race, that may have angered Leclerc and resulted in Mercedes’ making a rare error from the pitwall, and you have a win for Vettel that temporarily has assuaged his critics.
For now, Vettel has the balance with his car he has long craved, and while his team’s resurgence is too late to halt Hamilton’s march to a sixth drivers’ title, it has at least cast doubts on what would be a record-equalling seventh next term.
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Written by: Ian Parkes
Being second is to be the first of the ones who lose. – Ayrton Senna