Ferrari questioning SF90 car concept after poor start to season

After its worse start to a Formula One season since 2016, Ferrari is exploring new aerodynamic concepts to extract more performance from its 2019 car.

Ferrari is already 118 points shy of Mercedes in the constructors' championship and has failed to win a race since the U.S. Grand Prix last season. It showed the potential to win in Bahrain and Baku this year, but reliability issues and driver errors saw the team fall short.

So far, its best result in 2019 was Sebastian Vettel's second place finish in Monaco.

The magnitude of Ferrari's struggles hit home at the Spanish Grand Prix when Vettel qualified 0.8s off the pace of Valtteri Bottas' Mercedes. Just four months earlier, Ferrari had looked like the team to beat at the same circuit during pre-season testing, but its fourth and fifth place finish in Spain showed how far the SF90 had fallen off the pace.

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The lack of performance is not down to one single factor, but the root of the issue appears to be the way the car is using its tyres. Changes to the thickness of the tread of Pirelli's tyres this year means they need to be managed in a different way and Ferrari's team principal Mattia Binotto says his team is still adapting.

"The tyres this season are quite different to the ones of last year," he said. "There's no blame [on Pirelli], it's only a matter of fact. The main difference is that last year we all had very good warm-up on the tyres, and we were all focused and concentrated on cooling the tyres as much as we can to keep them working because the lower the temps, the better the grip.

"The tyres of this season are quite different in this respect. Warm-up is a lot more difficult, and also the window -- temperature targets -- to get the best grip from the tyres itself -- to achieve it you need to heat up the tyres. So instead of cooling them down you need to heat them up.

"How can you achieve that? Certainly you can achieve that through braking temperatures, rims cooling but overall it's downforce. No doubt. Certainly no doubt the downforce has absolute value but it is also how you balance the downforce high speed to low speed. It may be as well, let me say, how you may even target your aero development efficiency versus maximum downforce itself."

Ferrari's 2019 car is very aero efficient. In simple terms, a car's aerodynamics is always based on a trade-off between downforce and drag. Increasing downforce helps in the corners, reducing drag helps on the straights, but ideally you want efficient downforce that smothers the car in the corners while labouring it with minimum drag on the straights.

This year's Ferrari is fast on the straights and in high-speed corners, but has a crippling weakness in slow-speed corners. The team believes this is down to difficulties generating enough load through the tyres to keep them in the right operating window and, fundamentally, a lack of overall downforce. In order to address its weaknesses, Binotto said the team is looking at new concepts aimed at increasing absolute downforce, even at the cost of extra drag.

"I think we've got a car that's quite efficient, you can see it on the straight," he added. "But it doesn't mean we've got the car that's got the highest downforce in the pitlane. Sometimes, when in discussing targets, it means that we need some more in terms of final concept, are you better looking for maximum downforce or efficiency? No doubt it is depending on how the tyres are working and what is required, and so overall it's an interaction between the aero itself, suspension no doubt, because how you balance your aero through the corner, and overall it's the full package.

"So, we've got a car that is overall efficient, but lacking in some certainly peak of downforce. That's what we call concepts. So while we are developing our car step by step, now I think it's time to question ourselves if we need to look for different overall targets how to achieve the final performance."

Ferrari's aerodynamics are visually different to Mercedes', starting from the front wing and working backwards. A lot has been made of Ferrari's front wing design, which has elements that taper down towards the endplates, and the stark difference to Mercedes' design, which has large elements that run the length of the wing to the endplates.

The front wing is key to an F1 car's aerodynamic philosophy as it conditions airflow to the rest of the car, but Binotto denies Ferrari's concept is flawed.

"I think we do not need to change our front wing," he said. "Certainly it's a different concept to Mercedes, but that doesn't mean that we have achieved the maximum of its concept today. We are not foreseeing a change to the wing concept.

"The Mercedes style was checked at the start of our project, so it's a comparison we did at the start which was for one way of development. Certainly, through the season you always try to double check back what you did and if it's still the right choice. But we do not foresee a change right now."

France a key race

The long straights at the next round in Canada may suit Ferrari's concept, although there will still be concerns about the slow speed sections and Montreal's smooth track surface, which won't help Ferrari's pursuit of tyre temperature. However, Binotto sees the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard as the true test of Ferrari's evolving aerodynamic direction following the disappointment of Spain.

"Paul Ricard is very similar to Barcelona, as a circuit," he said. "It's not a track where we will be very strong but there is some time from now to then, eventually to try to improve. Improving the full car and the concept, it may take some time, no doubt to find a new aero concept it may take a few weeks but I think in the meantime what we need is to optimise the package we've got and there is still room to do so.

"If you look at the five races at the start of the season, there were some where we've been strong, and the rest of the races we still can be strong with the package, even developing it. We will fight day by day, race by race, and let's see."