More than Ferrari versus Mercedes, the battle at the sharp end of F1 is one of two contrasting philosophies. What exactly has Merc got so right? By Tom Clarkson.
After winter testing, hopes were high that – finally – Mercedes would be challenged at the sharp end of Formula 1’s hybrid era. Not only was Sebastian Vettel fastest around Barcelona, he was Ferrari’s chosen one. New team principal Mattia Binotto had said he’d prioritise the four-time champ ahead of Ferrari newcomer Charles Leclerc in the title chase. After five years of Mercedes domination, it looked like we were finally going to get a fight between F1’s two big-spending titans. That fight hasn’t materialised. Mercedes have creamed the opposition like never before, taking home one-twos in the opening five races. In those same five races neither Ferrari driver has managed better than third place.
With less stringent fuel limits, Ferrari have made big strides on horsepower
How come? There’s been a little bit of strategic mismanagement on the Ferrari pitwall, but mostly it’s been down to the major technical differences between the cars.
THE WHEELBASE WAR
The Mercedes W10 is the longest car in F1. It’s 4.5cm longer than the Ferrari, which gives the Mercedes design team more room to package the internals. That reduces the width of the sidepods, slims the car’s frontal area (reducing drag) and cleans up the airflow to the rear of the car.
The increased floor area on the W10 also generates greater downforce at high speed, which is why Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are so devastatingly fast through quick corners. The only disadvantage of the longer wheelbase is that the car is less agile around tighter tracks like Monaco and Singapore, but worryingly the Mercedes is now generating so much downforce at all speeds (it introduced a new front wing and bargeboards for the Spanish Grand Prix) that, if anything, it was through Barcelona’s tight and twisty final sector that the silver cars enjoyed the biggest margin of superiority.
FERRARI’S POWER ADVANTAGE
The 50 per cent thermal efficiency of the Mercedes power unit is something to be celebrated, but it’s less of an advantage for the team in 2019 than it was last year because the FIA has raised the permitted fuel load by five kilos. With less stringent limits, Ferrari have made big strides with horsepower.
At the Spanish Grand Prix they introduced an upgraded engine, which, in qualifying spec, pushes out more than 1000bhp. Spec 2, as it was called, was praised by the drivers – ‘Now I don’t think they have an advantage over us on power,’ said Vettel – and the extra grunt was reflected in the speed-trap figures, which saw Vettel consistently fastest.
A STORY OF TWO WINGS
Even to the untrained eye, the differences between the Ferrari and Mercedes front wings are pronounced. While the flaps of the Ferrari taper off towards the endplates, the Mercedes flaps remain at a constant level. Believe it or not, the aerodynamic ramifications of these different philosophies are huge.
The Ferrari front wing generates less peak downforce than the Mercedes solution and it pushes dirty air outwards, away from the centre of the car. The Mercedes wing does the opposite: it creates a higher level of peak downforce and keeps the airflow central.
While it’s easier for Ferrari to control their airflow, creating a predictable car, the potential of the Mercedes is greater – if they can control the vortices created by the bigger front wing. The team have clearly found a way to direct the airflow low, underneath the car – hence the ludicrously complex bargeboards. This solution is now yielding such fast lap times that Ferrari’s Mattia Binotto has questioned the validity of his team’s design philosophy.
FLAT OR RAKED?
Another aerodynamic conundrum is rake, the difference in height between the front and rear of the car. The Merc sits flatter than the Ferrari, and creates downforce in a different way. The high rake of the Ferrari produces a bigger aperture at the rear, speeding up under-car airflow and generating downforce in the process. It’s an aero philosophy that’s been exploited to devastating effect by Adrian Newey and Red Bull – by far the most visibly raked car on the grid – in recent years.
The disadvantage of a high-rake car is that the downforce can become peaky. As the car speed reduces, and with it the aerodynamic load, the rear end rises, potentially creating instability. The Mercedes solution of running a flatter car creates less peak downforce, but a more stable and drivable rear end. And that is proving to be the more effective solution.
UNLOCKING THE PIRELLIS
Pirelli’s 2019 tyres have caused headaches. The tread depth has been reduced to counter the over-heating issues that plagued the rubber in recent seasons and, with that, the working range of the tyres has also been reduced.
The extreme levels of downforce produced by the Mercedes allow it to unlock the rubber’s potential better than any other car, but Hamilton and Bottas still have to push hard to get it in the working window. When they can’t do that, performance suffers – as Hamilton found during Q3 in Barcelona, when he was trying to charge the battery without compromising the tyres; they weren’t up to temperature for the start of his flying lap and the end result was a 0.6s deficit to team-mate Bottas.
Sebastian Vettel has compared the complexity of tyre management to a Rubik’s Cube, and Ferrari have struggled more than Mercedes. But on an abrasive track surface, with some high-speed corners – like Bahrain – they can compete. On that occasion reliability let them down. Everywhere else, the Mercedes is just fundamentally superior…
First corner, Spain: Vettel tries to break up Merc’s run of one-twos. The longest car on the 2019 F1 grid? It definitely looks it.