Mark Hughes assesses the strengths of Ferrari and Red Bull to see which of the championship contending teams are best placed to win next weekend’s Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
Despite what the current championship points suggest, the two fastest cars currently are the Ferrari F1-75 and the Red Bull RB18.
The Ferrari seems to have the advantage overall, but the Red Bull has so far shown an advantage in the straight end speeds. The longer the top speed sections of a circuit, the more valuable that Red Bull trait is – and it’s probably no coincidence that Red Bull’s only pole and only win so far has come at the circuit. at very high speed from the Jeddah Corniche.
Until now, the Ferrari’s advantage has tended to be in low-speed cornering and acceleration. The next Imola track has an extended high-speed section (sector 1) followed by a sequence of rewarding downforce and acceleration corners linked by relatively short straights.
So far, Ferrari has tended to run with more rear wing than Red Bull, which largely explains the differences in their relative strengths and weaknesses.
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When choosing a rear wing level, the ultimate compromise between downforce and drag will vary from car to car. The effectiveness of the car‘s underbody in creating downforce will be one of the key parameters determining this (the downforce generated by the floor only creates about a third of the drag as the downforce created by the fenders) .
Engine performance will be another crucial factor. Maybe the Red Bull floor generates more downforce or the Ferrari has more power, or a combination of both.
Each car will have its own “happy place” – a range of wing levels where the car will operate at peak efficiency.
The Ferrari’s happy place seems to be with a larger wing area than the Red Bull. This implies that, on circuits which generally require more wing level, the advantage of the Ferrari over the Red Bull will be at its maximum. Those who generally demand low wing levels should see the Red Bull at its best, compared to Ferrari.
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What we also see, looking at the GPS tracks around the three circuits visited so far, is that the Ferrari seems to be either shorter or more powerful at lower revs. There have been corners at all three tracks visited so far where the Ferrari is in top gear over the Red Bull, suggesting its overall gear could be shorter.
A combination of shorter gearing and greater power delivery would go a long way to offset Red Bull’s greater end-of-the-straight speed. If a corner exit advantage on the straight is large enough, that advantage can be carried for quite a long distance before the low-drag car allows it to go faster.
The crux is how long it takes to go from the start to the end of the straight, rather than how fast they each cross the speed trap at the end. It’s perfectly possible that the low-drag car that’s fastest in the speed trap will take longer to get down the straight than the car that’s near the bottom of the speed trap list.
To get an idea of the magnitude of the comparison between Ferrari and Red Bull in this respect, we can look at the track in Bahrain. There, the Red Bull was going much faster at the end of the pit straight. He was slower coming out of the Turn 1-2 sequence than the Ferrari and therefore slower on the next straight, but he was going slightly faster by the time they reached the braking point of Turn 4.
The Red Bull descended the pit straight in less time than the Ferrari despite a slower entry. But on the shorter straight to Turn 4, the Ferrari descended there in less time despite being slow at the end. On the shorter straight between turns 10 and 11, the Red Bull didn’t have enough pace and was driving even slower at the end of this straight than the Ferrari.
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In Melbourne, partly due to the graining of the rear tire seen by Red Bull on Friday, the angle of the rear wing has been increased compared to Ferrari. It used even less wing than the Italian car for the rest of the weekend, but the difference was smaller than at the previous two circuits.
It was at this point that the advantage of the Ferrari was at its maximum. The data may be skewed by the chassis imbalance suffered by Red Bull in Sector 3 at Albert Park, but this model suggests that the Red Bull finds less lap times from a higher wing level than the Ferrari.
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The margins are small enough that any difference in the quality of the respective drivers’ laps can overcome it, but the suggestion so far is that the Ferrari is faster on a wider variety of tracks.
On the Imola side, the first sector (from the start/finish to the braking zone for Tosa) is a very long flat out punctuated by two chicanes. From what we’ve seen so far, this appears to be Red Bull’s best sector. The frequent acceleration and power sections (notably up the Acque Minerale hill) of the rest of the lap look like they were made for the Ferrari.