Why the F2012 is braking down
Sky Sports F1's commentary expert Mark Hughes explains why it's bad for Ferrari at the moment - but why they could still come good...
Last Updated: 07/05/12 12:59pm
Even Fernando Alonso at his very greatest could only deliver Ferrari fifth place in Australia. It's clear that the unfavourable picture painted by winter testing was all-too-accurate and that the F2012 is currently one wayward piece of kit. That's the bad news for Ferrari fans. The good is that the team is confident it has understood why the car is so bad and that a major update, hopefully in time for the European season, should see a correspondingly major improvement.
"The car at the moment is slow in a straight line and has poor traction and slow corner performance," confirmed Team Principal Stefano Domenicali post-race, "though our high speed corner performance is actually very good."
That all tallies with its performance pattern throughout the weekend. The car was particularly wayward into slow corners, with both Alonso and Felipe Massa off the road several times. Significantly, one of Massa's Friday spins and Alonso's trip into the turn one gravel during qualifying came as they put their outer wheels on the grass under braking. Whilst this would appear to be a fairly fundamental sort of error for drivers at this level, it points to a specific trait of the car - namely its instability under braking, and this is almost certainly a corollary of an unfortunate combination of lack of low-speed downforce with the geometry of the car's pull rod front suspension.
Being normally a public road, the Albert Park track has plenty of bumps and one of the traits of a pull-rod suspension is that it's not great over bumps. To minimise its tendency to force the tyre to pull sharply sideways when encountering a bump during cornering load, it needs to be set up with negative camber (wheels pointing outwards at the bottom) so that the cornering pulls the wheel upright. That cures the pull-rod geometry's sensitivity to bumps but introduces a different problem - instability under braking because when travelling in a straight line the tyre does not have its full tread surface in contact with the track.
If the car is lacking in low speed downforce, then it's likely that in trying to increase its grip in these types of corners the car had a set up that made it nervous and imprecise under braking - hence those incidents. This will all have been exacerbated by the loss of rear low speed downforce resulting from this year's exhaust blowing restrictions.
But it's clear that some teams have got around those exhaust restrictions more effectively than Ferrari - and here lies what is probably at the heart of the car's problems. Ferrari initially tried for a similar exhaust philosophy to McLaren's, using the sidepod's downwards contours to drag the exhaust flow down to give a partly-blown diffuser. But it has not resolved the layout as well as on the McLaren on which the exhaust outlet is as far forwards as the regulations allow. On the Ferrari it is much further back - forming a blockage to the airflow at a crucially sensitive place, where the lower body tapers in.
Such a blockage would be expected to increase drag and give slow straightline speeds and also to prevent the airflow giving much of a blown effect to the diffuser, tallying with the F2012's traits. A lack of low speed rear end downforce would also hurt traction.
The big update Ferrari plans to have on the car in time for the Mugello test before the Spanish Grand Prix is believed to comprise a totally new sidepod/exhaust layout that will address these limitations. Alonso and Massa will have to struggle on with what they have for the intervening three races.
Whilst that's not great news for Alonso, it's disastrous for Massa, a driver who needs a stable rear end in order to make use of his late braking style and who is surely already lacking in confidence. Alonso is extremely adept at driving around problems, Massa is not - and the car as currently configured will only exaggerate the natural performance difference between them.
Malaysia, Shanghai and Bahrain each feature layouts and surfaces that should be a little less punishing of the Ferrari's current limitations and the team can at least rely on Alonso to pull reluctant results out of it. Furthermore, it was notable that in Melbourne the Ferrari pit crew consistently delivered the fastest stops of all. So in this damage limitation phase of its season, Ferrari might reasonably expect to score regular points. Anything more than that will have to wait until at least Spain. An awful lot hangs on the effectiveness of that update.