Older is Faster for Ferrari

...and we're not talking about Kimi Räikkönen. Removing a few 'upgrades' has helped to restore the team's early season vim - albeit a little too late

RUSSIAN, JAPANESE AND UNITED STATES GP

"In the last three races, we had a loss of form, we know that, but we have analysed the situation and hope to have solved the problems. We will have the proof here in Austin.”

So said Ferrari’s chief Maurizio Arrivabene. Realistically, the championship looked a lost cause even before the three-race sequence of Sochi, Suzuka and Austin. The earlier operational and driver errors had seen to that. But worryingly, the SF71H seemed now to have lost performance. Its pace had perhaps been disguised in Singapore by mistakes during qualifying and it arguably had the pace to have dominated that weekend rather than trailing home third.

But in Sochi the performance shortfall was real – and coming on top of the Singapore weekend it led many to put two and two together and make five. Talk of an extra FIA sensor being applied to the Ferrari engine, negating the tricks of its unique twin battery layout, quickly spread. But this was just as quickly refuted by the FIA, which had not asked for any extra sensors to monitor the energy flows through the batteries since the two-part modifications at Monaco and Montréal. Arrivabene – whose English is halting at best, surreally confusing at worst – muddied the waters on this matter by acknowledging there’d been a second sensor fitted, but without stating when. It was at Monaco/Montréal. The mid-season surge of Ferrari grunt that had led Lewis Hamilton to reference, at Spa, Ferrari’s ability to do ‘tricks with its engine’ was with the second sensor long in place.

The reason for Ferrari’s autumnal shortfall lay elsewhere. But it was a very confusing picture – for the team as well as everyone else. Ferrari’s development curve for most of this season has been impressively steep – alternately leapfrogging and being leapfrogged by Mercedes, but with both pulling steadily away from the rest of the field. But now it seemed to have stuttered – around a big package of aero upgrades planned for these late season races.

In Singapore a new rear wing and rear suspension (that allowed more rake to be run) went onto the car. For Sochi there were new guide vanes, front wing and floor. But something wasn’t working. The Ferrari was suddenly no quicker than a Red Bull that it might ordinarily be expected to outpace comfortably – and could offer no qualifying challenge whatsoever to Mercedes.

Bottas’s Merc had qualified on pole (keeping intact his record of never having been outqualified by a team-mate around here) and ran the early part of the race in team formation with Hamilton. But after the latter began to suffer from rear tyre blistering, so Vettel was able to edge closer. This put Merc in a tricky situation and in discussing how to handle it strategically, the team compromised itself, allowing Vettel to get ahead of Hamilton at the pit stops. Vettel got very aggressive in defence but Hamilton retaliated hard with a clean pass a couple of corners later.

Under team instruction, Bottas then surrendered his win to Hamilton. But Vettel had only been in the picture because of Merc’s tricky situation on race day. On raw pace Ferrari had somehow lost about 0.5sec to Mercedes. The team’s analysis showed that in the power sectors it was still marginally better than Mercedes. More than 60 per cent of its lap time deficit came from the slow corners of the final sector, where it was having difficulty keeping its rear tyres cool enough.

At Suzuka a week later Vettel and Räikkönen were unhappy with the car on Friday. Where had the beautifully balanced flowing car of earlier in the season gone? What had changed? Inevitably, attention began to focus on the recent upgrades. Overnight back at Maranello, Ferrari’s development driver Daniil Kvyat back-to-backed the pre-Singapore-spec rear suspension, rear wing and pre-Sochi floor with the upgraded versions. No question about it: the old spec was better. Both cars were converted overnight. Into Saturday Vettel and Räikkönen agreed with Kvyat – the Singapore ‘upgrade’ had been a backwards step, as had the Sochi floor.

The Sochi front wing, though, remained on the car. Had it remained dry, the evidence suggested Vettel would have been vying with Bottas for a place on the front row – though both looked likely to have been behind the flying Hamilton. As it was, imminent rain in Q3 induced another nervy error from Ferrari, which sent both cars out on inters while the rest of the top 10 got in a single lap on slicks. From his compromised ninth on the grid Vettel had an incident-packed race, spinning to the back and damaging his car after colliding with Max Verstappen, then making a good recovery up to sixth (albeit a long way behind the victorious Hamilton) and setting fastest lap along the way, despite the damage. The result almost didn’t matter, given Hamilton’s continuing domination. The most important thing was that the cause of the performance loss seemed to have been identified.

For Austin the aero group had come up with another new floor with accompanying barge board changes. It was an evolution of the Sochi floor. Both practice sessions were run in heavy rain and, although Vettel tried the upgrade, it was felt that with no dry running it was too much of a risk. For Saturday the standard floor remained on – and the car was essentially in Suzuka race day spec. It was wonderful, Vettel said, the car it had been earlier in the season. He lost pole by only six hundredths to Hamilton and had been ahead right up to the final corner. Furthermore, the GPS analysis showed it was absolutely flying down the straights, its power just as prodigious as ever, so further rubbishing the ‘sensor’ stories. However, he was taking a three-place grid penalty for a Friday red flag infringement, and taking his place on the front row was Räikkönen.

The 39-year-old Finn made brilliant use of that present, using his grippier ultra-soft tyres to get a better getaway than Hamilton, then barging down the Merc’s inside to take the lead. Initially Mercedes assumed Hamilton would be able to pass him on track once the ultras faded. But that isn’t what happened. Hamilton could find no way past even as his tyres held on longer and so the choice was made to pit under a virtual safety car, putting him onto a two-stop. He never could pull out the required gap over Räikkönen for his extra stop – and Kimi thereby won. In fact Hamilton was beaten by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, too. Vettel? He made his eighth significant error of the year – colliding with Daniel Ricciardo on the first lap and spinning to the back. His comeback drive took him to fourth place by the end, enough to delay Hamilton’s crowning for one more race.

“We’ve lost three months of development,” said Vettel after the race, after seeing Räikkönen take a Ferrari pretty much of the same specification used in Hungary in July to victory in Austin in October.