Ferrari are the oldest competitor in Formula One, but their decades of experience have come under the microscope this year for failings in race strategy. Yet in Baku the red team’s call to pit both drivers under the first virtual safety car on lap 10 while the Red Bull cars stayed out appeared a masterstroke. However, another strategic decision made before the race eclipsed their smart race strategy as Charles LeClerc using an old engine saw it – and his chances of a win – go up in smoke.
F1 teams are allowed three engines per season for each driver, however once they introduce a second and a third engine they can switch between them at each race because they are treated as in the ‘3 engine pool’.
Teams can issue more than three engines, but suffer either 10 place grid penalties or even are forced to start from the pit lane.
Further, F1 team’s are not allowed to change the fundamental design of their engines once they are homologated/approved by the FIA before the start of the season. However, they are allowed to make unlimited ‘upgrades’ for reliability reasons but these must be approved by the FIA.
They can also repair existing components without upgrading them. Often the components are damaged beyond repair and therefore cannot be used again.
To complicate matters, these allowable ‘upgrades’ cannot be retrospectively fitted to an engine already in ‘the pool’. So in an ideal world a team would start its drivers on the homologated engine, upgrade it and give them their second engine about a third of the way through the season.Then repeat this again with the final third of the season to go.
The problem is, engines fail at inconvenient times.
At the third race of the season, Carlos Sainz spun in Australia beaching his car in the gravel trap. Ferrari later released the following statement.
“A problem has been detected with Ferrari’s Power Unit that has been in use since the first weekend of the season in Bahrain, and which so far has not had any major problems except, before the start of the Saudi Arabian GP in Jeddah, where there was a wiring issue that got resolved in time
“The plan of the team was to introduce the second unit between the weekend in Miami and Barcelona after completing the data collection program regarding reliability. However, after the problem encountered [in Australia], the Maranello team has decided as a precaution to bring forward the introduction of Power Unit number 2.”
So Sainz received his second power unit at race 4 in Imola. Certain components were ‘upgraded’ but it was not the fully ‘upgraded’ unit number 2 Ferrari had planned for Miami or Barcelona.
Sainz first PU was repaired with original components and became available for future Friday practice and the Monaco race where stress on the engine is minimal.
Charles LeClerc in fact received the ‘fully upgraded’ power unit 2 in Miami, ahead of the Barcelona scheduled date because Ferrari wanted to consolidate their lead in the championships before Red Bull could ‘catch up’.
Sainz at that time is of course unable to access this full version 2 upgrade that LeClerc has been given, because he took his power unit 2 in Imola.
On Saturday in the United States, LeClerc’s second PU did the trick landing him pole position.
On Sunday Vertsappen won the race.
Then came Barcelona. LeCLerc landed pole ahead of Verstappen but to Ferrari’s dismay when leading the race their Monogasque driver lost power on lap 27 and retired the car.
The engine was all but destroyed as Ferrari revealed.
“Having examined the PU from Leclerc’s car, we found the turbo and MGU-H are damaged and cannot be repaired.
“However, having fully analysed the failure and its cause, we are satisfied it did not occur through a design fault or reliability issue with these two components or any other elements of the PU.”
So unlike Carlos Sainz first power unit which was repaired and placed into ‘the pool’, LeClercs engine was mostly a write off.
Ferrari then had a big decision to make. Did they give LeClerc his ‘pooled’ first power unit to race in Monaco – without the ‘upgrades’ – or did they issue his third and final engine into ‘the pool’.
Given the Monaco circuit layout is not power dependent, Ferrari made the obvious choice to give LeClerc his original pre-upgraded power unit for the weekend. It was good enough to achieve pole position, though the teams pit stop strategy was woeful and saw LeClerc come home just 4th.
Next up Baku.
Baku and Monaco are chalk and cheese. Baku has a 2.2km final straight which is all about engine power and top speed. So Ferrari have a decision.
The Maranello third ‘upgraded’ engine isn’t ready, so if they issue LeClerc with the latest version he is stuck with that final ‘upgraded’ power unit for the rest of the season, or he takes a 4th engine later in the year when the ‘upgrades’ are ready but with it a 10 place grid penalty.
The question is, should Ferrari have released the 3rd and final version of the power unit o LeClerc in Baku for reliability purposes? It is a circuit where the cars are at full acceleration for 60% of the lap
With hindsight maybe Ferrari should have issued LeClerc with the engine for Baku. Because now after the power unit version 1 given to Charles failed on lap 21 at the Azerbaijan GP, it is inevitable he will be taking at least a 4th and probably a 5th power unit during the rest of the season.
In just 5 days, Ferrari will need to declare whether the failed PU of LeClerc’s in Baku can be repaired. If not, the Monogasque driver will be issued with a third power unit.
The only problem here is Charles has already used three Turbo components which are restricted to 3 per season. If the new power unit can’t be fitted with a repaired Turbo unit, then LeClerc will be forced to start the race from the pitman.
Ferrari have tried to play the long game and forced LeClerc to wait for version 3 of the upgraded engine. Yet it appears to have backfired and issuing Charles with a new engine for Baku now appears to have been the decision Ferrari should have made.