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The numbers that are the true judge of Ferrari’s 2021 F1 progress

Ferrari may be in a tight fight against McLaren for ‘best of the rest’ in Formula 1 this year, but it won’t judge success on the outcome of that battle.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Andy Hone / Motorsport Images

For despite the huge encouragement that Ferrari has taken from the way it has recovered from a dire 2020 campaign, where it finished a lowly sixth in the standings, ending up third is still not its ultimate target.

Time and again this season, Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto has been clear on that point: saying that it is ‘progression’ that matters far more than the final result in the 2021 constructors’ championship standings.

But judging progression can sometimes be a subjective thing, which makes it hard for those outside of Ferrari’s senior management to understand just where the team is stacking up in its quest to get back to the front.

Sure, there are some obvious front of stage performances, like Charles Leclerc’s pole positions in Monaco and Baku this year, that show it’s on the right path.

But Binotto prefers digging into more detailed numbers to evaluate just where Ferrari is at right now. And it is these figures that have left him pretty chuffed with where things are going.

On points terms the step forward can be seen by everybody. With 163 points to its name after the first ten rounds this year, making it joint third in the standings with McLaren, Ferrari has already easily eclipsed the 131 that it scored during 2020.

But more impressive than that is the fact that after the opening 10 rounds last year it had scored just 80 points.

As Binotto explains: “It is more than double for the same number of races. If we look at the entire grid, we are the ones that gained the most.”

There are other key indicators that show similar levels of progress.

“If we look at the lap time and pure car performance, so let’s take qualifying because that's where we are all at the maximum performance, if we take the average of the entire season, [last year] we were 1.4 seconds off the pole,” he says. “Today we are 0.7s away.

“A 0.7 seconds gap is still a distance and is not negligible, so we are fully aware of it. But still I think we halved the gap to the best and that’s encouraging because it shows the direction is the right one.”

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, makes a pit stop

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, makes a pit stop

Photo by: Glenn Dunbar / Motorsport Images

Another key area where Binotto sees tremendous gains is in pitstops, where he thinks the data points to Ferrari being up there amongst the very best again.

“I always consider that a good pit stop is below three seconds to what we call to green, so when the driver is leaving the pit box,” he explains.

“Three seconds may seem a high number, but I always say that for strategy it is important to try to be consistent, not only fast but consistent.

“What happens in a race is if sometimes you have got a problem, and your stop may last five or six seconds, that type of situation can be very difficult.

“So if we look at the three seconds mark, and how many times we've been below three seconds in 2021, so far it is 84%. Last year it is 48%.

“Here again we are showing that as a team, and the pit crew mechanics in terms of pit stops, we have certainly improved our pit stop time and our pit stop quality.

“Looking at the below three seconds stops, again as a percentage, we were P8, in terms of classification last year. So there were seven teams doing better than us.

“Today we are P2, so there is only one team that has done better than us in terms of percentage below three seconds.

“Those are the numbers that are showing that as a team and with the car overall, there are certainly improvements in 2021 compared to 2020. And the direction is encouraging.”

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Still more needed

A halving of the gap to Mercedes and Red Bull is certainly a good step in the right direction, and Binotto thinks it is 60% down to an improvement with the power unit and 40% down to the chassis.

But however good a halving of the gap to the front is, the reality is also that it shows there is still as big a jump again if it is to be in a position to beat Mercedes and Red Bull in pure pace terms.

Ferrari hopes of doing that will be boosted by a ‘significant’ engine upgrade that is coming in the second half of the campaign, but progress on the car front will be down to incremental improvements rather than there being a magic bullet.

Binotto adds: “There are still gaps to the best, as we've said, 0.7s in the quali. I think that 0.7s not only comes from one single area. It is a sum of various areas, so it is a sum of certainly aerodynamics, power unit, and overall systems on the car.

“I also don't think we are lacking only in one area. But I think lacking only in one area, that would be even worse because it means that you need to recover a lot in a single area which can be more difficult. So it's a sum of various areas.”

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Jerry Andre / Motorsport Images

French GP lessons

One of the most challenging times for Ferrari came after the French Grand Prix, when a dire afternoon struggling with tyres left Carlos Sainz and Leclerc out of the points.

The afternoon had exposed an inherent weakness in Ferrari’s front tyre management, and it prompted a deep investigation back at Maranello to try to get on top of it.

The response was swift though, and the effort to understand the problems paid off as the team has not since had such a bad afternoon.

Speaking about what the team discovered, Binotto opens up on how deep the analysis went.

“We tried back at Maranello to approach the exercise in terms of: do we have an issue on our car, in terms of concept, which as a consequence is bringing that type of tyre wear?,” says Binotto.

“If we look at not only France, but all the races just before France, on average compared to the entire grid, we were the ones that were somehow wearing the most on the front. So was that due to a car concept, or was it due to more car setup, or was it, tyre management, and driver style?

“So what we did at the time is tried to move the parameters of the car concept, like suspension geometries, weight distribution, or whatever you may have.

“We made various simulations, off track simulation and driver simulator, and tried to map what is the influence of car design into the tyre wear, and are we capable of somehow trying to replicate what was the tyre wear we had in France by moving the car design concepts.

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari SF21, Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT02, and Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF21

Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

“Then we worked on the setup. So you've got a car, which is what it is in terms of setup in terms of design, etc. but you can also move what you can: toe, camber, stiffness, weight distribution, weight balance, aero balance, to see if you can somehow try to replicate the situation in terms of tyre wear.

“And we tried to model the tyres in terms of simulation to make sure we got a better overall correlation.”

The conclusion from all those investigations ultimately boiled down to the general idea that the way Ferrari was setting up the SF21, in a bid to protest the rear tyres, was triggering a fair degree of understeer.

“If you are wearing it is because you are sliding. It's as simple as that,” says Binotto. “And if you are sliding, the reasons you are sliding can be simple setup.

“So you may protect the rear of the car in braking, to have a good rear stability, but then it means understeer in medium/high speed or low speed, and it was certainly a combination of all that.

“But where we moved ourself in the following races, we tried to have more of a balance in terms of oversteer to understeer. We tried to slide less on the front, and manage the tyres in that respect.

“I think whatever steps we made in that direction proved to be the right thing and the right direction to cope with the tyre wear.

“As a matter of fact, in Austria, but certainly in British and as well as the situation in Hungary, we showed that we were able in the last races to have an improvement in terms of front tyre war, and it doesn’t seem to be as critical as it has been in France.”

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz Jr., Ferrari

Photo by: Motorsport Images

Best driver line-up

If there is one area where Ferrari is pretty satisfied with where things stack up it is on the driver front.

Having signed Sainz as replacement for Sebastian Vettel as Leclerc’s teammate, Binotto raised some eyebrows recently when he voiced his opinion that he felt his line-up was the best in F1.

“That's my personal judgement,” he explains. “They are both very young, which is great because we are trying to create solid foundations for the future, but they are already somehow experienced.

“I think that Charles is doing very well. Still progressing, he has high potential, and I think he has not achieved yet his best.

“Carlos has integrated very well into the team. And I think that really in terms of the drivers’ integrations, both between them in terms of mood, but also integration with the racetrack, and engineers back to Maranello, I have to say that it's working very well.

“It’s showing that great potential, a potential which I'm pretty sure there is still much to come.

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“In terms of the championship, I think they've got almost the same points - 83 and 80. And I think I've always said that in order to win the constructors' title you need both drivers to perform well. So I think it's what we are showing.

“We've got two solid drivers, two solid racers. And I'm pretty sure that by the time they will have the right car, both of them can do very well.”

And it’s the numbers behind Ferrari’s progress in 2021 that leaves Binotto hopeful Sainz and Leclerc will not have to wait too long to get that ‘right' car.

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