Ferrari met pre-weekend expectations by locking out the front row, but the Italian team’s Saturday dominance by no means guarantees its Sunday success.
For one there’s Ferrari’s form to consider. This is the team’s fourth pole position of 2019, but neither Charles Leclerc nor Sebastian Vettel has mounted the top step of the podium this season.
In Bahrain Leclerc’s race was cruelled by a power unit problem, while in Austria he was denied late by a brilliant Max Verstappen in sweltering conditions. Vettel’s sole pole, at the Canadian Grand Prix, turned into only a second-place finish after he was penalised for cutting a chicane while defending against Lewis Hamilton.
And these three incidents say nothing of the races in which pole was on offer but not taken. Azerbaijan springs to mind, where a Q2 tyre gamble precipitated Leclerc crashing when he seemed on track to claim P1. as does Germany, where power unit problems took both drivers out of the running before the top-10 shootout. The less said about the team leaving Leclerc in his garage during Q1 in Monaco after he’d gone fastest during Saturday practice the better.
But at none of these races has Ferrari had quite the advantage it did during qualifying in Belgium, where Leclerc put his car on pole by a whopping three-quarters of a second ahead of teammate Vettel and, more demonstratively, Hamilton in the next-best car.
Ferrari’s class-leading engine — generating ‘ridiculous’ levels of power, according to Mercedes boss Toto Wolff — was key to pole, and the fact the Italian team has struggled to bolt downforce onto the car all season only exaggerated its advantage at a circuit that rewards straight-line speed.
Given its advantage — and notwithstanding the propensity for Ferrari to bin its best chances — will this be a slam-dunk Ferrari race? Don’t be so sure, because the strategy particulars aren’t in the team’s favour.
|2019 BELGIAN GRAND PRIX GRID|
Distance: 7.004 kilometres
Lap record: 1:46.286 (Valtteri Bottas, Mercedes, 2018)
Tyre stress: Very high
Lateral load: Very high
Asphalt grip: High
Asphalt abrasion: High
Safety car probability: 60 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 387.7 kilometres
Pit lane time loss: 17.446 seconds
Fuel loss: 0.4 seconds per 10 kilograms
Tyres: C1 (hard), C2 (medium), C3 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: C1–1.0 seconds–C2–1.5 seconds–C3
Ferrari was never really in doubt for pole in pure pace terms, but Friday practice suggested it will enjoy nothing like that sort of advantage in the race — indeed the red cars are predicted to fall behind Mercedes and even Red Bull Racing in race trim on the soft-compound tyre.
|Mercedes (8 laps)||1:50.796|
|Red Bull Racing (4 laps)||1:51.031|
|Racing Point (4 laps)||1:51.282|
|Renault (10 laps)||1:51.360|
|Ferrari (9 laps)||1:51.858|
|Haas (2 laps)||1:52.112|
|Alfa Romeo (7 laps)||1:52.294|
|McLaren (10 laps)||1:52.396|
|Toro Rosso (6 laps)||1:52.410|
|Williams (12 laps)||1:53.383|
Though Circuit Spa-Francorchamps is a power circuit, its high-speed corners put immense stress on the tyres and the asphalt is very abrasive. Setting up the car for minimum downforce, as Ferrari has done, will obviously boost straight-line speed, but it comes at the cost of tyre wear as the back of the car slides around, particularly through the twisty middle sector of the circuit.
The sector times from qualifying tell the story — Ferrari has a handy advantage in sectors two and three, but in sector two both Mercedes drivers clocked better times.
It sets up an interesting race prospect. Ferrari will be able to keep itself at arm’s length at all the key overtaking spots at the end of the track’s long straights — though the advantage will be lessened with the engines in race mode — but will be vulnerable on strategy, which Mercedes and perhaps even Red Bull Racing will be able to wield to get ahead.
However, even this comes with some caveats, for although there was decent data gathered on Friday, an expected significant temperature variation means tyre predictions could prove inaccurate. The temperature’s expected to peak at just 17°C during the race compared to around 30°C on the previous two days, meaning tyre warm-up and wear profiles will be notably different.
Based on past grands prix this should favour Mercedes, which works the tyres harder than Ferrari — its underperformance in the heat of the Austrian Grand Prix is an extreme example of this — but the Scuderia seemed confident after qualifying that it had improved its race pace overnight Friday.
|Red Bull Racing (3 laps)||1:50.387|
|Mercedes (3 laps)||1:50.641|
|Ferrari (6 laps)||1:50.827|
The cooler weather will almost certainly mean the hard compound will be discarded for most teams — it will suffer from slow war-up and Pirelli anyway estimates it’s around 1.5 seconds slower than the medium, albeit based on limited Friday data — which means a one-stop strategy will have to rely on the medium tyre to make it to the end.
Pirelli suggests a one-stop onto the medium at around half distance is the quickest strategy, but for teams struggling with tyre life a soft-soft-medium run to the flag is similarly fast.
If Mercedes indeed has a tyre preservation advantage to comfortably one-stop past the slippery Ferrari drivers, could Leclerc and Vettel plump for a two-stop race and rely on their superior engine performance to slipstream back into the lead?
It makes for a fascinating strategic dilemma as Ferrari attempts to lock down its first win of the season.