Charles Leclerc was in a race of one in the Australian Grand Prix, his Ferrari car purring in the warm Melbourne sunshine on his way to a commanding victory.
Max Verstappen tried, but his Red Bull Racing machine simply wasn’t up to the pace, and after running out of strategic options after half distance, his car gave up the ghost and retired itself before the end of the race.
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But this is Ferrari, for years now an F1 laughing stock. How is it that it came to dominate the Australian Grand Prix so comprehensively?
WHAT MAKES THE SF-75 SO GOOD?
We have a sample size of only three races, but already a clear trend is emerging for Ferrari’s 2022 car: it isn’t fussy about where it races or about track conditions.
It’s a trend we saw begin in preseason testing in fact. Straight out of the garage the SF-75 was quick, and Charles Leclerc in particular was able to push it to its limits around Barcelona early in the program.
In Bahrain it needed almost no coaxing to take pole, after which Leclerc was able to keep Verstappen at bay relatively comfortably. Only the lap of Sergio Perez’s life stopped Leclerc from taking pole in Saudi Arabia, where only the vagaries of a late virtual safety car brought Verstappen into victory contention.
In Australia, the third dramatically different circuit type so far and a brand-new challenge for the field after its reprofiling, it was strong from the off and ended up in a class of one on Sunday.
It isn’t that the car is substantially quicker than the RBR machine – in fact it’s arguable whether one is faster than the other at the moment. It’s just that it’s always starting on the front foot, which gives it three clear hours of practice to be finetuned to the specific circuit demands and control the race.
The engineers deserve credit here too for accurately predicting track evolution and setting up correctly for it. The new surface gripped up progressively and rapidly through the weekend and turned what appeared to be a rear-limited circuit into a front-limited one, but by the time the rubber was on the road, Ferrari was ready for it, and its domination on Sunday was its reward.
“There’s no reason for us to be on the back foot, because we’ve done a great job,” Leclerc said.
“Since the last two years I really see a jump in the way we’ve analyzed every weekend in the way we have also identified our weaknesses and how quick we were to react to try and get better in the places where we were struggling.”
Even the car’s porpoising, among the most severe in the field, isn’t enough to unsettle what’s clearly an extremely stable base platform.
“It looks extremely bad on the on-boards,” Leclerc noted. “Of course I feel it, but it doesn’t disturb me too much in terms of performance.
“Today it wasn’t an issue… I couldn’t have gone faster if I didn’t have the bouncing.”
The summary is that this was a complete performance from team and driver, not simply one lucked into.
F1’S NEW EQUALIZATION MEASURES AT WORK
But how is it that Ferrari, a team that’s been the butt of F1 jokes for years for its wayward development and haphazard strategies, come to the field a car so well rounded?
Rewind to 2020, Ferrari’s modern nadir.
Last year F1 introduced equalization measures to limit wind tunnel time for teams based on their position in the constructors standings in the previous six months, similar to the reverse order for draft picks in the AFL. For example, at the start of 2021, when the 2022 car was starting to take shape, Ferrari had 13.8 per cent more development hours than Mercedes, having finished sixth in the previous year’s standings to Mercedes’s first.
At the halfway point of the year, having improved to fourth, the advantage from July to December was cut to 8.3 per cent.
More interesting still is that this year, with the sliding scale larger than last season, Ferrari will have 14.28 per cent extra development time than Mercedes and 7.14 per cent more time relative to Red Bull Racing until the end of June, when the order will be reset again based on the current title standings.
The handicap system has come into effect alongside arguably the biggest rules change in the sport’s history, and Ferrari has made the most of it – and presumably still will be until it’s reined in in a few months, assuming it retains the championship lead.
Then there’s the way Ferrari approached preseason testing, focusing only on its launch-spec package to ensure it understood how it worked as deeply as possible. Contrast that to Red Bull Racing, for example, which brought a major update to the final day of testing and is still finding the sweet spot. In such a new regulatory era, the knowledge is extremely valuable.
One might also look at Mercedes, with perhaps the most ambitious aerodynamic package of the field, and wonder if it would have been more functional early in the season had it been able to conduct more wind tunnel and computer evaluation. We may reflect at the end of the season that the team simply bit off more than it could chew in the circumstances.
RED BULL RACING RB18: DIFFICULT AND UNRELIABLE
Finally, there’s also the reverse side of Ferrari’s dominance: Red Bull Racing’s inability to nail set-up in Melbourne.
The team started on the back foot on Friday but by Friday night was confident it had made steps in the right direction for Saturday – except when it hit the track on Saturday for third practice it found itself further off the pace.
The origins of its struggles are twofold: a car that appears to have a narrower operating window and a team that predicted incorrectly the set-up challenge for Saturday and Sunday.
The car’s default happy place, with less downforce, left the rear axle exposed to graining on Friday in Melbourne, which the team calculated would be a problem that extended into the race and set up for. Instead, with the track rubbering in progressively, the front tire, specifically the front left, that suffered graining by the time qualifying and the race rolled around, and RBR, having set up to counter the opposite problem, found itself worse affected than most.
“They were on another level,” Sergio Perez said of Ferrari. “I think we were also a bit too poor with our balance.
“We took a bit of the wrong directions with the car, so I think there is a good analysis to be done.
“We run the two cars a bit different, so I think there is a good analysis to do.
“I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from this weekend because we seem to be a bit harder on the tires than Ferrari.”
The conclusion from Melbourne? Red Bull Racing isn’t as off the pace as it looked, but Ferrari is every bit the solid performer as it demonstrated.
Throw in the unreliability problems and it’s clear Ferrari has taken the upper hand early in the season.