For many Tifosi after winter testing, the expectation was for the red team to come to Australia and be at the sharp end, alas this was not to be the case.
That being said, if we’re to look back at 2018, Vettel and Ferrari very much lucked into their win at Albert Park having not been particularly quick in qualifying. A mistake by Mercedes during safety car period meant that Vettel won track position on a circuit notorious for difficult passing.
Indeed, their winter testing in 2018 was similar to this year, suggesting that again they were the team to beat at the start of the season pace on Sunday wasn’t a lot better than Saturday qualifying; the quickest Ferrari being at least 0.6 seconds off Mercedes on Saturday in 2018.
The Ferrari’s Saturday pace this year is similar with the deficit to Mercedes in qualifying being 0.7 seconds off the fastest Silver Arrow. Of course, last year the speed delta between the two teams was never as great again, and Ferrari kicked on to be somewhat faster than Mercedes, at least during the first half of 2018. Some hope for the Tifosi.
What is strange is the rhetoric from the two biggest employees of Ferrari at the track in Melbourne; their lead driver and four-time World Champion Sebastian Vettel, along with the new team boss Mattia Binotto.
Binotto admitted to Sky Italia post-race that the car lacked balance and was not in the right operating window, almost as if it were a surprise to the team after winter testing at Barcelona.
“What we are certain of is that this is not the real potential of our car,” said Binotto in an obvious bid to reassure the Italian audience.
“Ferrari has a superior potential, which for some reason here in Australia we have not been able to exploit. We didn’t feel comfortable on this circuit all weekend long. We lacked the right balance, we tried to review the setup but if there’s no balance the driver can’t drive to the limit.” explained Binotto.
On the other hand, we have on record their lead driver Sebastian Vettel post-race saying that this year the car balance felt good, and that it’s the complete opposite to 2018 when they finished winter testing expecting to struggle at Melbourne.
“Last year we left winter testing with problems with the car. It wasn’t behaving the way we wanted it or the way it should,” says Vettel
“This year was the opposite. The car was behaving the way we expected and it felt very good.
“We came here last year and the balance wasn’t right. We had a very poor rear end last year and we had to trim the car towards understeer a lot. That didn’t feel great.
“We managed for this weekend last year and obviously the race pace was fine but we weren’t there in qualifying.
“We got lucky in the race. By Bahrain we had a fix to our issues in winter testing and the first race last year and that’s why we all of a sudden unlocked a lot more pace last year.”
So the big question for fans of Ferrari and indeed the entire Italian nation will be if Ferrari can find the issue that kept them from challenging Mercedes before the next race in Bahrain. Many are hoping that the poor pace is simply track specific, and all will come good in the desert.
Or could we be seeing the beginnings of a team that aren’t quite sure what’s going on with their car now they’re away from the cool conditions of winter testing, proven by the two leading Ferrari people at the circuit seemingly contradicting each other?
There is a rumour in the paddock that the Ferrari experienced some significant overheating problems in Melbourne, forcing the team to turn down their engine power and open up the cooling on the bodywork. Turning down power hits the hardest on Saturday, when the engine modes are required to be at the max when drivers are bidding for pole.
Opened up cooling, down on speed even though they were running less wing – equals PU issues to me.
— Matthew Somerfield 🅢🅞🅜🅔🅡🅢Ⓕ① (@SomersF1) March 17, 2019
Not only does extra cooling suggest power unit problems, but the biggest issue encountered when having to open up the car’s bodywork for extra cooling is the knock-on effect on aero balance and tyre performance of the Pirelli compounds, and this was proven by comments made by Vettel:
“We switched relatively early to the medium-hard Pirelli. At first I thought: too early, and on the whole second part of the race wasn’t good. I don’t know why.” says Vettel.
“In the first part of the Grand Prix I was much more satisfied with the car. It was about the opposite of what Leclerc told me.”
For Pirelli boss Mario Isola this is all a mystery. “I’m not quite sure what happened,” he admits after the Ferrari tried to improve their situation for Vettel swapping over to the harder compound.
“Maybe Ferrari didn’t understand how to get the best out of the tyres. The medium-hard tyre worked great on some other cars, such as Toro Rosso or Red Bull Racing. Gasly and Kvyat drove it for a long time with a heavy car. And Bottas has the best race lap two laps before the end with this tyre compound. So we can’t say that the yellow marked tyre didn’t work well in general.
“Maybe there was something wrong with the Ferrari.”
The team and the Tifosi will be biting plenty of nails during a long two weeks before Bahrain no doubt.