Today it’s quite clear that Ferrari is the team to beat for this season. But what brought them there? Last year almost every pundit said it was Red Bull which would bring the challenge to the ‘all dominant’ Mercedes. Now it seems Ferrari outsmarted all their competitors. It seems I’ve written this before, haha.
So what’s part three about? Their tires!
Last year Pirelli asked the FIA if the teams could build a mule to test their 2017 rubbers. Of all the teams only Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing had the money, the resources and the team to build such a car. Biggest difference between them? Only Ferrari rebuilt a 2015 car close enough to the 2017 design, and they used their main drivers extensively.
Of course the FIA had made strict regulations on the extent to which the teams could rebuilt their 2015 car. The restrictions went so far that the teams were only allowed to make changes in the areas of the front wing, the rear wing and the floor of the car. Because Pirelli only wanted to have test results with the supposed down-force levels of 2017. Naturally, these restrictions were filled in differently between the three competitors.
The upgraded Ferrari SF15-T was supposed to have the lowest down-force levels of the three test cars, according to Pirelli information. But the technicians from Maranello probably could not care less. They just wanted to learn a lot about the 2017 car and tires.
On their car Ferrari mainly changed the parts of the vehicle which would give the greatest insights into the 2017 season. The SF15-T was the only test car equipped with a wide 2017-sized rear wing. It was the only car to expand the diffuser area to simulate the 2017 expansion as realistically as possible. The only car that lowered the barge-boards in front of the side pods. And the only car that added additional flaps and vertical flow aids on the front wing, which are very similar to today’s concept. In addition, the rake of the car was significantly increased.
This all was an approach completely different to both Mercedes and Red Bull. These two were satisfied with changes which brought more down-force, but which were completely useless with regards to the 2017 season. Red Bull opted for an extra mounted wing element under the 2015 rear wing, to generate more pressure on the rear of the car and to support the diffuser. These so-called “beam wings” are not allowed in the current regulations. They also used elements on the floor that “sealed” their car better to the road, which are, once again, illegal under current regulations.
Mercedes also opted for a similar set up with a beam wing on the rear of the car. But they also tried an aggressive adjustment of the rake of their car and lateral sealing strips. But apparently the experiment did not bring enough insights to venture into this territory. This is believed to be Mercedes’ reason to look in to a longer wheelbase for the car.
In retrospect, it becomes clear that neither Mercedes nor Red Bull could not learn much about their test car with regards to the 2017 car. Ferrari, however, learned a lot through it. The modifications on the front wing, the position of the bargeboards, the larger diffuser and the rear wing in the 2017 format clearly indicated the expected flow conditions. What’s more is that for the first time in a long, long while the data of the wind tunnel matched with the results gathered on track. If you think about it, have your heard anyone at Ferrari complain about correlation problems between the factory and the track, this year? I know I have not!
Furthermore it seemed that Ferrari, also for the first time in a long while, dared to think out of the box. Best example was that design of their rear wing. The FIA only had one real restriction for the rear wing of the test cars: All kinds of elements and geometries are allowed within the designated reference area of the rear wing, within a range of 300 and 950 millimeters.
Ferrari grabbed this “opportunity” to build their rear wing as close as possible to the 2017 design. Their wing used the whole permitted 950 millimeters and their end plates where exactly built like the ones used today. Was this the first sign of Ferrari’s new (and bolder) approach? Did their design team felt freer than previous years? And, not in the least, did they dare to use that freedom?
One other thing that has set Ferrari apart from Mercedes and Red Bull, during the Pirelli test, is how they used their driver pair. Ferrari obliged both Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raïkkönen to do all the testing. Unlike Mercedes and Red Bull, who both used their test drivers more than their regular pair.
In the end this resulted to 2228 km for Vettel and 1054 km for Raïkkönen. Compared to the distances driven by their rivals these numbers are enormous. Reigning world champion Nico Rosberg drove just 209 km. And Lewis Hamilton did not do more than 50 km! I knew Lewis did not like testing, but this seems absurd. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen stopped after 517 km, and Daniel Ricciardo ended his test after 200 km.
Surely someone at Mercedes and Red Bull should have figured that neither Pascal Wehrlein nor Pierre Gasly could have the same sense for tire development, nor the experience, as a pair of drivers with 5 world champion titles between them…
In addition, Vettel had also joined Pirelli for working on their wider tire outside of the race track. Pirelli’s President Marco Tronchetti Provera explained in Monte Carlo: “Sebastian visited us several times in Milan to discuss his impressions with our engineers. Thus, a driver of his experience should have gained so much knowledge that he and his technicians at Ferrari were able to work out set-ups necessary to keep the tires in the optimum operating window.”