Ferrari has spent most of this season with remarkably consistent, albeit mediocre, performance. Which makes it odd that the last two races have yielded its worst, then best, performance levels of the season.
Ferrari’s position behind Mercedes and Red Bull has fluctuated dramatically between third and eighth, but in pure performance terms there hasn’t been much deviation from its average at all – leading to the slightly easy conclusion that Ferrari’s had roughly the same competitiveness everywhere and gained or lost depending on how its rivals perform at different circuits.
Then, from the low of Russia where Ferrari was more than 2% slower than Mercedes and more than 1% behind the leading ‘Class B’ team, came the relative high of the Eifel Grand Prix, in which Charles Leclerc was fourth on the grid and within 1% of pole for the first time this season.
That’s a big swing from one race to the next. Applying it to a hypothetical 90-second lap, it means Ferrari went from being 1.8s slower than Mercedes to just eight tenths off the next time out – or a second slower than its midfield rivals to being the quickest of that bunch.
Here’s the percentage deficit to the fastest time at each event:
So, which Ferrari should we expect in Portugal? Possibly neither, and its normal position of ‘fifth or sixth best’ and sniping for a top-10 grid position will be restored. But another Class B-leading performance should not be discounted because if either of the last two races is to become the anomaly in the season, it’s Russia.
The Sochi track was never likely to suit Ferrari given there’s an ultra-long run to Turn 2 and a hefty back straight as well, which heavily punish the high-drag, underpowered SF1000. Hence quite comfortably Ferrari’s worst qualifying performance even in an already-disappointing season. But, and this is an important point, Leclerc’s race was excellent as he rose to sixth and held his own against cars that looked much faster on Saturday.
It was a marked improvement to the previous race at Mugello, where Leclerc was an excellent fifth in qualifying but slumped to an uncompetitive ninth, while team-mate Sebastian Vettel was fortunate to beat the Williams of George Russell to the final point.
And that improvement continued at the Nurburgring where Leclerc qualified on the second row for only the second time this season, and while Ferrari struggled with tyre warm-up in the bitterly cold conditions on Sunday he was still seventh at the flag.
That means over the last three grands prix, Ferrari has legitimately been able to see light at the end of the tunnel. A very difficult run of races exposed weaknesses in both the car and engine thanks to the high-downforce tracks of Silverstone and Barcelona, then high-speed circuits of Spa and Monza. But for slightly different reasons, the last three events at Mugello, Sochi and Nurburgring have thrown a few silver linings Ferrari’s way.
“There are very many factors,” said Ferrari’s sporting director Laurent Mekies at the Nurburgring.
“I don’t think we need to get too excited about it but I think the first part, hopefully, is that we have got a couple of smaller upgrades, both in Sochi and here.
“Hopefully we have hit rock bottom a few weeks ago now and we’re trying to reconstruct towards the resolution of our issue. It’s a long path, I’m sure it will be up and down but I think [the team made] the first step in that direction after Sochi hopefully, the car had a bit more performance.
“Then, of course, Charles did a very, very good qualifying, very fast straight away and he extracted everything that could be extracted.
“Lastly, we cannot forget that it’s a very specific weekend with no running on Friday. It’s always going to be a bit challenging, for good or for bad, so I think it’s a combination of these three things if I’m honest.”
At Sochi, Ferrari introduced a revised rear-wing endplate and changes to the cape under the nose and the all-important bargeboard. Next time out at the Nurburgring, refined the bargeboards further and had a circuit-specific front wing revision.
Ferrari has been key to downplay the significance of these changes in performance terms. The new parts have not unleashed a huge about of pace in the car. But they have worked, Ferrari is convinced of that, and this is important in informing its development direction. Last year, Ferrari admitted to some major upgrades not correlating when they were run on-track.
“We were not expecting a lot of difference,” confirmed team boss Mattia Binotto in Germany. “It was small.
“It is positive in that they confirmed what we saw in the tunnel and were in the right direction.
“There will be further updates in the coming races. But it was important here to find the right direction.”
There has been talk for some time of a reworked diffuser, which was initially slated (outside of the team) for the Nurburgring but is now said to be expected at Algarve this week.
Ferrari has promised more upgrades, which will be an interesting test given the weekend-specific graining problem that hurt Leclerc’s opening stint at the Nurburgring unlikely to reappear in warmer temperatures in Portugal.
While one Ferrari driver, Vettel, looks trapped in a permanent 2020 tailspin, there’s little more Leclerc can do to win plaudits.
Without Leclerc, Ferrari would be looking at its worst points haul from a season since 1993. You probably don’t need reminding how few points were on offer at each race back then compared to now…
Leclerc has started eight races in the top 10, bagged two podiums, and is just two points behind a Red Bull driver in the championship. Any fears that his sophomore Ferrari season would be a disappointing follow-up to his pole-claiming, race-winning exploits last year have been emphatically dismissed.
Twice he’s managed to put the Ferrari on the second row, and that statistic of eight out of 11 races in the top 10 is impressive in a car that’s sixth-fastest over the season. He is consistently extracting the maximum from a limited package and his opportunistic podiums in Austria and Britain were just reward for his efforts.
It’s given Ferrari a vital weapon in recent races because Vettel isn’t showing anything like these sorts of peaks. Ferrari did an excellent job at adapting to the unusual races at Mugello (its home track, admittedly) and Nurburgring for Leclerc to be able to qualify fifth and fourth at those races.
But the fact Vettel didn’t even make it into Q3 either time shows the car’s speed is not easy to tap into. Leclerc described his qualifying effort as a “stand-out performance”, but it’s becoming harder for such heroics to stand out in a consistently excellent season.
A “clean and sharp” Saturday, according to Mekies, was an important factor in Leclerc’s Eifel GP form. That was after Friday featured zero practice running and teams had to readjust, with only Saturday’s one-hour session to prepare before qualifying.
As mentioned earlier, graining on the soft tyre in the opening stint of the race itself made life harder than it should have been for Leclerc, but that was likely a consequence of the specific, very cold conditions at the Nurburgring. Binotto said that was behind “everything” difficult about Ferrari’s grand prix.
But if races like the Eifel GP are a perfect storm of ‘improved car, in-form driver and unusual circumstances’ that opens the door for Ferrari to fight at the front of Class B, the next few races should be good opportunities as it bids to continue its rebuild.
Algarve is followed by a return to Imola, which will trial a two-day format, before F1 heads to another old circuit, Istanbul. It’s a good run of peculiar events thrown up by the pandemic and should be kind to Ferrari, which did its homework well at Mugello and the Nurburgring.
If this feels like a generous interpretation for a team like Ferrari finishing in the lower points position, its season needs to be placed in perspective. Ferrari looked in serious decline through a very tough period that spanned months, rather than weeks.
Expectations need to be re-adjusted for what the 2020 version of Ferrari is: another midfield team. A run of points finishes is nothing for this fallen giant to celebrate in isolation but in the context of a difficult year and knowing the fundamental limitations of its package, it is real progress.
It will be reflected modestly this year. The true measure of Ferrari’s escape from “rock bottom” will only be felt long-term, but at least this is a start.