During Friday’s two ninety minute practice sessions for this weekend’s Italian Grand Prix, Scuderia Ferrari seemed a little coy and dull for their home race.
Indeed, long run simulation analysis revealed the team were, on average, over one whole second slower than their German rivals, Mercedes, on both race tyre compounds.
Sebastian Vettel had “mixed” feelings after Friday, telling media, “it hasn’t been the ideal day you are normally looking for.”
“It was not an easy day: for whatever reason,” agreed Kimi Raikkonen, “it was difficult to drive and put the car where I wanted.”
So, the simple questioned is put forward, why were Ferrari over a second behind Mercedes on the long run simulations?
Theory 1: The Oil Burn controversy
The FIA’s recent clamp down on oil burning is a ploy that might have affected Ferrari’s chances in Monza.
Earlier in the year, during June, the FIA announced they would be tightening the rules around reusing oil as a fuel to gain a competitive advantage, with extra constraint systems planned for 2018.
But, on the Monday before last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix, the FIA announced that the allowed liters of oil to be burned per 100km would decrease from 1.2L to 0.9L for the Italian Grand Prix weekend.
But, because Mercedes had introduced their new power unit in Belgium, they were able to continue running it at 1.2L per 100km, whereas Ferrari, who had planned to introduce a freshly updated internal combustion engine (ICE) in Monza, would’ve been forced to run at the 0.9L per 100km limit.
This would’ve undeniably handed Mercedes a competitive advantage.
Consequently, Ferrari have not introduced a new specification ICE this weekend, instead running the same part they did in Spa, allowing them to also run at the 1.2L limit. The downside of this is that Mercedes come into Monza with an ICE that’s got just one race of wear on it, whereas Ferrari introduced their current ICE way back in Britain.
Either way, Mercedes have gained a competitive advantage, despite unconfirmed reports they’re already only running at 0.9L per 100km.
Theory 2: It’s just a circuit which suits Mercedes
The undeniable theory that mustn’t be glossed over this track just plays to the strengths of Mercedes.
Saying Mercedes and their extremely efficient power unit have shaken Ferrari this weekend is the easiest hypothesis for their lack of pace. But, then again, the Scuderia proved they could fight with the Mercedes power last weekend in Belgium, a circuit which, admittedly, shares similar power demands to Monza.
A difference in pace ranging from a couple of tenths last week to over a second this weekend is undeniably irregular.
But, on the contrary, Monza “has been good to [Mercedes] in recent years” – according to their very own Team Principal, Toto Wolff. His statement ahead of the weekend conceded the previous strength Mercedes has had at Ferrari’s home – since the introduction of the V6-Hybrid era in 2014, Mercedes have led every official F1 session held at Monza.
Further proof of their dominance at the so-called Temple of Speed is from 2015, when Lewis Hamilton took just his second career Grand Slam at the time. This means he took pole position, fastest lap and went on to win the Grand Prix whilst leading every lap.
All of this historical data suggests Mercedes should be impressively strong this weekend as they’ve already proved.
Theory 3: Ferrari’s sneaky, but potentially clever, compromise
One of the most easily recognizable traits of the simulation data in FP2 was the major disparity between the long and short runs.
Whilst Ferrari were, on average, 1.067s and 1.004s behind on the supersoft and soft long runs respectively – their qualifying simulation on the supersoft saw the gap perched at just 0.140s.
Now, compare that to Belgium’s qualifying simulation gap of 0.262s in favor of Mercedes, and it’s immediately clear Ferrari have made steps forward with regard to the pace on Saturday, but in the process Ferrari have, probably unwillingly, sacrificed pace for the race on Sunday.
That trade off would normally seem unusual as Sunday is when the points are handed out, right? But, last weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix was pure evidence of why qualifying performance has almost become more important than the race on Sunday.
Because of the profound dirty air effect from the new generation of cars in 2017 – overtaking is considerably harder. The larger amounts of drag have also lessened the effectiveness of DRS, which means many overtakes have to be more natural.
In Belgium, we saw the Renault powered Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo hold of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari in the final stages of the race. Despite the latter having a car that seemed capable of winning races, Ricciardo was able to stay ahead because Raikkonen couldn’t close him down in the overtaking areas.
This – along with Vettel’s inability to use his ultrasofts to make an impression on the soft-tyre-clad Hamilton – just proves how vital track position has become to achieve race wins.
So – this theory is rather straight forward. Ferrari, knowing they can’t topple Mercedes from pole position on a normal day, have optimized their car to ensure it takes pole position. And even though their long run pace is concerning – the fact that they’ve got track position almost wipes away their ailing pace for Sunday – or that’s their presumption anyway.
Ultimately, it remains unclear which theory has the most gravity to it. Also, all of them work in unison and it could be a combination of all three. Or, equally, it could be none of them.
Before qualifying at 1pm CET, no one really knows just why Ferrari have been considerably slower so far this weekend.
It simply remains to be seen…