What caused Ferrari’s French GP nightmare
Ferrari slumped to its first non-score of the 2021 Formula 1 season at the French Grand Prix, in a race Charles Leclerc labelled one the most difficult of his career.
Neither Leclerc nor Carlos Sainz were able to keep their tyres alive long enough to match the lap times of their rivals, and their pace drop off and need for extra stops saw them slump to outside the top ten.
But while Ferrari was not alone in suffering more degradation in the French GP than expected, the Maranello outfit definitely felt things much worse than the opposition. And that has left the squad chasing answers as to why its SF21 car, which had taken pole position in Monaco and Baku, was left fighting at the back of the midfield pack.
The root cause of Ferrari's tyre degradation issue appears to revolve around the management of its front tyres. The team has found that the fronts of the SF21 tend to warm up quickly and operate in a very narrow temperature window.
Such a characteristic can be great for a qualifying lap – especially at slow speed tracks like Monaco and Baku where tyre warm up is a big factor. However, over a long race, where the tyre temperatures steadily rise, it means they can fall out of the other side and that triggers trouble.
It is a trait we've seen all season, with Ferrari proving to be quick in qualifying but not always managing to covert that in to race pace.
Sainz said after the Paul Ricard race: "It's been a tendency, and I'm not going to lie. It's something that it's been in the back of our minds going a bit into every race.
"We know we tend to struggle a bit more in the races than in qualifying. But I must say that there's also been a couple of weekends this year where this issue hasn't appeared.
"For example, in Barcelona the race pace wasn't an issue. It is also clear that we have a very narrow window of working range on our front tyres, so we tend to struggle a lot more with graining or with front wear than our competitors.
"So now it is about trying to understand why we have this such a narrow window, and why do we struggle more with this front tyre when compared to our competitors.
"I'm sure the whole team will go back tonight to the factory and from tomorrow we will be working extremely hard to try and address it because it's evident, and it's obvious. You don't need to be a genius to see that we are clearly struggling."
Several factors were at play to make the circumstances of the French GP so hard for Ferrari.
As a track with higher speed corners, Paul Ricard puts more energy through the tyres than venues like Monaco and Baku, so keeping tyre temperatures under control is harder. Furthermore, the rain that came on Saturday night and Sunday morning washed away much of the rubber that had been put down by cars earlier in the weekend.
It meant a 'green' track surface for the race that had considerable less grip – which is always a trigger for higher than normal degradation, plus graining, as cars slide more. Sainz experienced first hand just how much less grip there was than expected when he slid off the track on his way to the grid.
Ferrari's problem with the front tyres also seems to be something that cannot be eradicated through simple setup changes.
Team principal Mattia Binotto thinks the solution is something that can only be sorted in the medium to long term, with some major car component tweaks.
"Can we address it with a simple development on the current car? I think we may improve the situation but to solve it, I think we need to have some hardware change, like for example the rims, which is not possible [due to the] regulation," he said.
"I think it's more important for us at that stage to try to understand and address it for next year. I think that this issue may happen again at some races, but not all tracks. It is track and weather conditions related, but we need to prepare ourselves to face such situations in the future and at least try to mitigate the problem, since it will happen again."
Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21
Photo by: Charles Coates / Motorsport Images
The reference to the wheel rims is especially interesting, as it all but confirms that Ferrari is simply overheating its front tyres. Modern wheel rims, which have been homologated for this year so could only be changed by burning tokens, are incredibly complex.
Teams use them for both aerodynamic effect and air flow to help better manage the tyre temperatures. In Ferrari's case, it may be that it has gone too far in chasing aerodynamic gains over heat extraction – meaning the rim, and therefore the tyres, are getting hotter than the team would like.
But while Ferrari knows what went wrong in France, it now faces an intense few days to work out why it was so bad and what it can do to prevent a repeat.
Binotto added: "We need to go back, analyse the data have a brainstorming, and do some simulations. I think that will be part of the homework that we need to do."
But it knows that guaranteeing no repeat in Austria this weekend will be too much to ask.
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