If you were looking for a racing analogy to sum up Ferrari’s situation this season, there was no shortage of them at the Miami Grand Prix.
You could pick Charles Leclerc’s crash at the end of qualifying. The turn 7 smash, which ended Q3 early, was his second of the weekend at the same corner. The repetitiveness felt very much on brand.
If that didn’t do it for you, there’s Carlos Sainz’s efforts to convert third on the grid into his first podium finish of the year. His attempt to undercut Fernando Alonso was probably undone by his penalty for speeding in the pit lane, but the Aston Martin had more than enough pace despite the strategy disadvantage to comfortably seize the place — as did George Russell, who easily relieved Sainz of fourth shortly afterwards.
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Or perhaps the better example is Leclerc’s race. Starting from seventh and pitting at the end of lap 17, he spent most of the middle of the race stuck behind Kevin Magnussen’s Haas — a customer Ferrari team — before gaining places late as other drivers pitted. He momentarily moved up to sixth before Lewis Hamilton, up from 13th on the grid, made easy work of the Monegasque to demote him to seventh. He finished less than three seconds ahead of Alpine pair Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon.
The only thing that prevented this weekend from being the team’s worst double finish of the year was Lance Stroll’s absence from the frontrunning fight in his otherwise competitive Aston Martin car.
“The Mercedes are quick, the Aston Martins are really quick in the race, the Alpine didn’t look too bad in the race,” Leclerc told Sky Sports. “We have a lot of work to do.”
THE SF-23’S SPLIT PERSONALITY
You might be tempted to say Ferrari’s SF-23 is simply slow, but that doesn’t do justice to what is a complex picture of performance.
Despite the car’s woeful race-day showings, in terms of pure pace it’s comfortably Red Bull Racing’s closest challenger.
Its season-long average qualifying deficit is 0.248 seconds to pole and 0.214 seconds to the RB19 — close enough to have taken pole position in Azerbaijan along with the top qualifier spot for the sprint.
To put that into the context of the rest of the frontrunning group, in qualifying the Ferrari is 0.316 seconds quicker than the Aston Martin, 0.422 seconds faster than the Mercedes and 0.774 seconds ahead of Alpine. That is, Ferrari is far closer to the front than any other team is close to Ferrari.
Leclerc and Sainz also have the highest average qualifying result of the entire grid, albeit helped by Red Bull Racing’s various Saturday dramas, easily be ahead of the rest of the frontrunners.
If you looked at all these figures in isolation, you’d assume Ferrari must be in the fight for victories.
But the numbers are clearly not transferring into the race.
The team is a deserved fourth in the constructors standings and already 146 points behind Red Bull Racing.
Despite their qualifying feats, Sainz is only fifth in the title standings marginally ahead of George Russell — who retired from a podium position in Melbourne — while Leclerc is seventh ahead of only Lance Stroll.
Sainz is losing an average of two places per race relative to his grid spot, the most of any driver — though his penalised 12th-place finish in Melbourne exaggerates this number.
Leclerc is losing one place per race — Saudi Arabia penalty excluded — though this is misleadingly small given he crashed out of qualifying in Miami and got lucky with Verstappen in the Baku sprint. His DNFs in Bahrain and Australia aren’t counted.
It’s almost like they’re driving completely different cars on Sunday.
WHY IS THE CAR SO SLOW?
The team had a couple of key objectives for the SF-23. One was to lose less time down the straights by shedding drag, and the other was to improve tyre consumption in the races.
But somewhere in the process the car has lost what was last year’s biggest strength, which was predictable handling with a wide operating window.
By comparison the SF-23 is snappy, unpredictable and difficult to set up.
“What we are lacking is consistency from the car,” Leclerc said, per Autosport. “Not even from corner to corner, just in the same corner — I can have a huge oversteery balance and then a huge understeery balance.”
The Monegasque said the problem was exacerbated after pit stops, with different tyres producing wildly different characteristics.
“Every single race we are going from one compound to the other and we never know what is going to happen on a new compound,” he said. “It is always an unknown how the car is going to react and if the tyres are going to be in the right window.
“And this is just very difficult as a driver to gain the confidence and adapt your driving, because you go from one set to the other and the car is completely in a different window.”
And the tyre wear problem hasn’t even come close to being solved — in fact, if anything, it’s become even worse in 2023.
That’s especially the case on weekends like Miami, where rubber wear was an unknown on Sunday morning thanks to the new track surface and heavy overnight rain that washed away the rubber. It was enough to catch out Sergio Pérez in the far superior RB19; obviously it was going to severely hamper the Ferrari.
“You do one good fast lap and then the next lap you are three tenths slower,” Sainz said, per The Race. “It means that we don’t have flexibility to push or not push and we just need to follow a certain pace to make it to the end.
“I am surprised as I thought we would be better, but this race showed us that we still have some work to do.”
The knock-on effect of high tyre wear means strategic options are also very limited. The car is essentially locked into a predetermined race, leaving the drivers and pit wall with limited tools to battle against rivals.
It might be tempting to cut the team some slack given it was using an updated floor at the weekend that engineers may not have been able to fully exploit due to unusual track conditions, but the truth is that the battle against inconsistency has been ongoing since the first race.
“I think it has been similar since the beginning of the season,” Leclerc said. “We sometimes feel we’ve done a step forward and then you arrive in particular conditions and it is warmer than other races and now we are completely off the right window of the tyres.
“We need to work on that.”
IT ALL RIDES ON UPGRADES
Ferrari has fast-tracked some upgrades to the car after realising its shortcomings during the pre-season and early races, the first of which was applied at the weekend.
That Miami was one of the team’s least competitive rounds betrays the fact it was obviously no silver bullet.
But more substantial changes are due at next weekend’s Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, the team’s first home race of the year.
In particular Ferrari is tipped to bring a new suspension configuration — which could be crucial given suspension geometry has proved to be a key battleground under these regulations.
One of the secrets to Red Bull Racing’s success is its suspension, which prevents the car from diving under brakes or squatting on acceleration, thereby keeping the car at a controlled attack angle. It allows for consistent downforce around the lap. It also means the car can be run lower, which improves the efficiency of the floor.
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At this stage of the regulatory cycle suspension is key to getting the most from the aerodynamic ground effect, so it’s no wonder Ferrari is focusing here.
Team principal Frédéric Vasseur has said all season the SF-23 has decent inherent pace considering the qualifying times. Upgrades could be the way to make that speed more sustainable.
But there’s a caveat here too.
Red Bull Racing’s suspension set-up means the car is slower to warm the tyres, particularly the fronts, because the forward axle isn’t as heavily loaded under brakes as it would be on other cars.
That in turn means the RB19 is at its weakest in qualifying, especially if it hasn’t had a chance to properly prepare the rubber, but is strong at looking after its tyres in the race.
If Ferrari were able to move towards this solution with new suspension — and there’s only so much that can change in a season anyway — would that just rob it of its relative qualifying pace for a little more tyre life?
In that case the equation is more grim — it’s not about brining Sunday’s form into line with Saturday; instead it’s about equalising qualifying speed and race pace somewhere in the middle.
It would suggest the SF-23 has the potential to be a decent car alongside Aston Martin and Mercedes but not to contend for victories.
It’s too early to know for certain of course, and the team has a third tranche of upgrades due at the Spanish Grand Prix in early June.
But considering the struggles experienced by the drivers and the car’s obvious problems, it’s difficult to imagine the Ferrari suddenly making the considerable step onto the podium with the addition of some new parts.