From the drop of the flag in Australia to the summer break, Formula 1 fans enjoyed a dreamlike title race.
Out of the box Ferrari drew first blood with Sebastian Vettel taking wins in both Australia and Bahrain, giving Ferrari fans hope that this was going to be the year the Ferrari finally would win the Drivers & Constructors Championships’. Sadly, for the Tifosi, this was not the case. The lead that Vettel pulled out over Lewis Hamilton in the Drivers’ Championship early in the season through hard work, great car set-up, great pace on Sundays, and good developments in the engine department started to become undone by bad strategy calls and developments on the aero side that weren’t bringing big dividends in pace.
The biggest reason for Hamilton and Mercedes getting the lead back comes down to unforced errors by Vettel, as well as the team itself. These resulted in a lead which could have been managed carefully through better strategic calls as well as more patience by Vettel being undone. Since the summer break, Mercedes had the upper hand in pace, development, strategy, and patience.
The Mercedes car has been blindingly quick through the season but didn’t get the best use out of its tyres in certain situations, causing them to wear quicker, grain, and blister. The Ferrari had been great on tyres in the first half of the year, but as the season unfolded, Mercedes got on top of the situation, and has been in a league of its own since. On its own, this would only be one issue that Ferrari would have to deal with, but there have been other factors which have meant that the team, or driver has been shooting itself in the foot over and over.
Ferrari in the first part of the year brought pretty much the same tyre selection Mercedes did, and were better on them. However, the team had a horrible habit with leaving both drivers, especially Kimi Raikkonen, out on their tyres way too long before calling them into the pits to change. This not only hurt the drivers in terms of their pace at the end of the stint, but it also prevented the team from successfully employing the “undercut” method to get their drivers ahead of their rivals.
The logic behind this method is that as soon as you sense your tyres are starting to lose pace, you bring the driver in and get him back out on track before the rival driver comes in to pit. You have your driver put in a very fast out lap and try to gain a pace advantage due to the fresher rubber. If this strategy works, your driver gains enough time to jump them after the rival completes his stop. For whatever reason, Ferrari have just had horrible strategic calls, holding their drivers back and is one reason why they have not got better results at tracks that may not favour them, or in races where they didn’t start in ideal grid positions.
The aero developments that Ferrari are bringing to the track aren’t bringing the needed pace gains to keep them ahead of Mercedes, or more to the point, get the car on terms with Mercedes in terms of downforce or efficiency/drag. The Mercedes seems to be able to follow other cars well without destroying the tyres in “dirty air”. It can simply pull out on long straights with DRS and blow by just about any car on the grid, even when it gets out of the slipstream of other cars.
Most cars seem to hit a wall of air once they pull out of the slipstream, Ferrari especially, as showcased by Max Verstappen and Raikkonen in Austria this year. Kimi was able to get the Ferrari within 1-2 seconds of Verstappen in the Red Bull but didn’t have the aero efficiency to keep the car close behind without destroying the tyres or slipstream past on long straights. Whenever, Kimi was able to get behind the Red Bull on the straights, he couldn’t win the drag race on the long straight, because he’d pull out from the slipstream and hit a wall of air and would lose his speed advantage.
Ferrari’s aero has been better than in years past, but Mercedes still seem well ahead in this area, and it shows. They also have a car that is better balanced/efficient on the mechanical grip side of things. The drivers never seem to have to work the steering wheel as hard as the Ferrari drivers. This shows the car is balanced, even when they are pushing hard. The Ferrari always seems more on edge and harder to control, which in the end means higher tyre degradation.
While Mercedes would bring aero developments to the track that seemed to bring noticeable, if not large lap time gains, Ferrari just doesn’t seem able to bring big chunks of time improvements to the car, and in some cases, doesn’t seem to bring any at all. The one area where Ferrari have pulled ahead is on the engine/power unit side, which is a big win, but it is being let down on the aero/mechanical grip of the equation, negating the gains in this important area.
Sebastian Vettel, so calm, collected and mature during so many of his wins and championships with Red Bull, seems frantic, nervous, and at times flustered during the latter half of the season. When he has started outside the front row, or gets stuck behind another car, he has lacked the patience he has had in previous years in simply waiting for the right moment to pass or waiting until that car pits and then using his superior pace to gain track position and time.
This was illustrated perfectly last weekend in Japan. Max Verstappen had earned a 5-second time penalty for outbraking himself into the last chicane and then forcing Raikkonen off the track, as well as sustaining damage to the Ferrari from the incident. Vettel caught up to Verstappen, knowing he had a time penalty in the pits to serve, and rather than waiting for him to pit and then upping his pace, avoiding a crash or destroying his tyres trying to pass him when it is unneeded, he tried frantically to find a way by him. This led to an overly optimistic pass going into Spoon Curve, hitting the side of the Red Bull and spinning himself around, losing a huge chunk of time and flat spotting his tyres as well.
This isn’t the first incident where his lack of patience has cost him either. He’s had a few incidents where he has tried to make passes that he shouldn’t due to a lack of patience. Rather than taking a 3rd or 4th place finish in Japan, which might have been possible given where he started in 9th because of the rain in Q3, he ended up finishing 6th further hindering his chances of decreasing the points advantage Hamilton gained in the race.
The reason he started 9th on Sunday is because Ferrari made a terrible call in sending Kimi and Sebastian out on Intermediates, instead of the softest available dry compound tire, costing them both higher starting grid positions due to poor lap times on a semi-dry track, and worse times on a wet track by the time they got in and changed tyres for a second qualifying run.
Ferrari have lacked the correct strategic calls all season, and it has hurt their drivers and helped Hamilton extend his points advantage time and time again. Coupled with Vettel’s own mistakes, this makes up a big reason why Hamilton is leading the Drivers’ Championship by 67 points with only 4 races to go. Realistically, Hamilton could fail to finish 2 races outright and still have a 17-point advantage if Vettel wins both.
All these things basically mean that Ferrari have put themselves in a hole they cannot climb out of in 2018. The team do, however look to be in a much better position going into 2019 if they can correct these things. For starters, they do hold an advantage on the Engine/Power Unit over Mercedes, an advantage they’ll look to extend. If they improve their aerodynamic efficiency and downforce, as well as their mechanical grip/balance they could seriously make a run at a championship in 2019 with Vettel and newly signed young revelation Charles Leclerc. Hopefully 2019 will then see a full season-long Mercedes vs Ferrari title scrap.