Ferrari is still adjusting to its new position of scrapping for fourth-best in Formula 1 and hoping to snipe for something better. That is the limit of its ambition again at the British Grand Prix.
“Mercedes and Red Bull are in the front, Racing Point was very fast today,” Ferrari’s sporting director Laurent Mekies said after Friday practice.
“Whether we can grab one or two of these six cars is probably where we are shooting. And to keep a healthy gap to the rest of the field.
“That will probably be where we are again.”
Ferrari was already bracing itself for a difficult pair of Silverstone races. Its down-on-power engine would be exposed once again on the power-sensitive circuit, where the National and Hangar Straights are now joined by a long flat-out run from Luffield to Becketts.
Even the Williams was taking Copse flat early on Friday. What were corners are now curved straights. And with the 2020 Ferrari not being the class leader through the corners either, hopes were not high even before Friday.
“I guess we are the underdog” :: Sebastian Vettel
Mekies had said before the weekend that “from a pure competitiveness point of view it will be difficult” and that the back-to-back at Silverstone needed to be treated as a data-gathering exercise.
This was echoed by both drivers on Thursday, when asked by The Race if the circuit would exaggerate the car’s weaknesses.
“We expect two quite difficult weekends,” said Charles Leclerc. “On paper though, so I always try to be optimistic.
“I’ll have the same mindset going into the weekend, but realistically I think it’s going to be pretty difficult.”
Sebastian Vettel added: “Yeah it’s probably the right way to look at it.”
“I think it is not the track where we should be strongest with the current package that we have but then we are here to race, I always look forward to being on the grid and seeing what we can do.
“I guess we are the underdog but maybe we can still put up a good fight.”
Friday’s times paint a more optimistic picture with Leclerc fourth-fastest and clear of the McLarens and Renaults, albeit three tenths of a second slower than Lance Stroll’s Racing Point.
“The quali pace is a bit better than what we expected to be honest,” said Leclerc. “This is good.”
But it was misleading because several drivers had their qualifying simulations wrecked by a red flag caused by Alex Albon shunting his Red Bull. And Ferrari was still a long way from actually challenging the lead Racing Points and Red Bulls in any case.
It also came at a price. Leclerc’s long-run pace was not good at all, 1.8s a lap slower than Valtteri Bottas’s Mercedes on average. That left Ferrari vying with Haas for seventh-best in that metric.
If that is repeated on Sunday it will not be a case of Ferrari doing a damage-limitation job in qualifying and picking up places in the race, it will be a battle for the drivers to avoid falling like a rock – similar to Leclerc’s decline in the Hungarian Grand Prix but this time without a flawed strategy to pin it on.
After a mini-reprieve in Hungary qualifying, where Ferrari locked out the third row, Silverstone could represent a new low for Ferrari in an already difficult season. Well, at least in performance terms – nothing will top the ignominy of its two cars crashing in the midfield on lap one in the Styrian Grand Prix.
“On race pace we have been struggling massively, so we definitely need to work on that,” Leclerc admitted.
“We’ve taken quite a radical approach with our downforce level, so it seems to pay off in quali, but it doesn’t in the race.
“The balance was extremely hard to drive and very, very difficult not to do mistakes, so we definitely need to change something on that because otherwise doing that many laps during the race with this balance will be a huge challenge.”
At least Leclerc was in the mix. Vettel had an extraordinarily unfortunate Friday in which his first practice session was rendered meaningless after just two installation laps thanks to an intercooler problem that required a big strip-down to check.
In the afternoon he had a problem in the pedal assembly that Ferrari did not want to take “any silly risks” with.
“He had close to zero running,” said Mekies. “Certainly we are starting from scratch with him tomorrow.”
Being the underdog and on the backfoot is an unenviable position to be in, but this is Ferrari’s reality in 2020.
There is no magic short-term solution to its mediocrity, and the team is simply trying to make the best of a bad situation.
“We’ve done our homework and if we factor that in with normal conditions we know it’s going to be tight behind the top guys,” said Mekies.
“Hopefully we’ll be in that fight.”