Here are the three most remarkable facts of the Azerbaijan Grand Prix won by Valtteri Bottas, ahead of Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Max Verstappen, and Charles Leclerc.
A crazy circuit, but not always
The track in Baku is unique in the world of Formula 1. It has a very particular design, which goes from the longest straight of the world (2.2 kilometers) to the narrowest point in a circuit, only 7 meters wide the curve leading to the castle wherein qualifying they slammed Leclerc and Kubica. There are about 300 drain covers along the track, and FP1 was canceled because one of them exploded when Russell and Williams moved on it. In short, this is to give an idea of how unpredictable a race can be on this circuit. And besides, we had also seen it in the past years, with great heart-pounding prizes, adrenaline-pumping like an action movie with the Avengers. The problem is that such a circuit can be dangerous, but the other side of the coin is that it makes Formula 1 full of action, wonderful beyond strategies, as someone likes it.
In this regard, let me return to the discourse of strategies at Ferrari. You are dominating in the FP like in Bahrain, you can do the lockout in Q3, you have a Leclerc that drives so well, why risk and put the medium tires in Q2? Even more so when there is a curve like the one just described that leads to the castle that has nothing to do with a Grand Prix of Formula 1. Medium tires decrease the grip and cause an excessive risk in the qualification phase in such a particular curve. It is true that then the race is different because anything can happen as we have seen before, but having a Leclerc in front would have been much better. Leclerc proves to hold us and feels stronger than Vettel, and indeed it is. He can ask for Ferrari’s number 1 driver promotion right away. We just hope that Ferrari doesn’t block it because it’s the only hope of winning this world championship.
But this year it was a very different Azerbaijan Grand Prix than in previous years. Everything went as planned, as often happens in Formula 1, but not in the Azerbaijan Grand Prix. Formula 1 is that exciting sport because for the human being it is very difficult to break the limits of physics and to unhinge a result that in other ways is already established by questions concerning mechanics rather than sentiment. When this happens the Formula 1 is exciting but, in order to be in this way, a few times it must happen. And the Azerbaijan Grand Prix has not been one of those few times.
It was, therefore, a mere management operation, and Bottas is very good at managing this circuit, as he also demonstrated last year when he was first until three laps from the end when he suffered a puncture.
A few doubts, in short. We do not understand why Ferrari did not change Leclerc’s tires before allowing overtaking by Bottas, Hamilton, and Vettel. He would have at least given a little salt to the competition and broken the monotony in the slightest. However, Charles Leclerc made many overtakes in the first phase of the race, taking advantage of the long straight, and the best performing tires. He stated that this is one of the circuits he likes best, and we noticed him in the race, where he was elected as the best driver of the day. Even Verstappen could try to invent something in the final phase of the race, putting back the soft tires to try to get closer to Vettel. But he didn’t.
Despite this, Red Bull ended the race surprisingly close to Mercedes and Ferrari. This is a great sign at Red Bull and confirms Honda is greatly improving in the evolution of its power unit, as we will see in a dedicated paragraph.
So Baku is a crazy circuit, but not always. As in other circumstances, a series of concurrent causes must occur to make the Grand Prix truly enjoyable. In short, the monotony must be undermined and this often cannot happen if the Safety Car does not take over. Baku, therefore, becomes as boring as many other circuits of this modern Formula 1, who would have ever said it after what had happened in the two previous Azerbaijan Grand Prixes.
Fluctuating results for Ferrari
Four similar races but also four different performances for Ferrari: terrible in Australia, because of a weakened Power Unit, good but unreliable in Bahrain, not so good in China, and not enough good also in Azerbaijan. But in all four appointments, there is a common denominator that is an inefficiency in the slow curves of the front end of the SF90. Vettel said: “Overall I think it’s a good car but we’re still not able to fully exploit its potential. To get the result it’s always clearer than what we are still missing at this stage, so I believe that the prospects will be important for us so that we can set the right path for the coming months “.
But let’s start with the Barcelona tests. Already in Spain, it was clear how much Ferrari was in trouble on entry and on low-speed curves against a Mercedes definitely not in top form like the one than seen at the start of the World Championship in Melbourne. It has arrived in Australia and the script is the same: Ferrari in difficulty in most of the corners, especially in the slower ones like the 3rd and 15th. In qualifying, only in those two stretches of the track does Ferrari lose 4 tenths from the Mercedes of Hamilton. A gap then expanded also due to the important problems with the Power Unit that did not allow the two SF90s to recover tenths in acceleration and more generally on the Melbourne straight. We arrive at Bahrain, the second round of the season and the time lost in the slow corners will only be a tenth. The paired abrasive asphalt and “rear-limited” circuit together with a working Power Unit at the highest levels (from Bahrain 15 more CVs in qualifying than Mercedes falling to 5 during the race) allowed the Italian Team to hide the problems then resurfaced in China. Third seasonal appointment, in Shanghai, where the “front-limited” circuit and little abrasive together with rather fresh environmental conditions have brought SF90 back into heavy difficulties; they are 7 tenths of a second lost in the curve, 4 of which between curve 6 and curve 11.
All this would be due to the little aerodynamic load generated by the front of the car which, on certain tracks and in particular environmental conditions, does not allow the front tires to enter the correct temperature window.
Speaking of tires, it should be stressed that this season uses compounds with reduced tread, similar to those seen in Barcelona, Le Castellet and Silverstone last season. What does this mean? Greater difficulty in generating the correct heat in the tread to bring it into the correct operating window, difficulties that increase with the lowering of the track temperatures. The change was desired by Pirelli itself to eliminate the much talked about, last season, blistering or the deleterious overheating in the heart of the tire that creates an abnormal detachment of the same. However, putting in difficulty many teams including Ferrari and Red Bull, much less Mercedes.
Under the magnifying glass, the particular front wing of which the SF90 has been equipped since the Spanish tests cannot but go. A wing as interesting as it is extreme in concept, used “only” by the Italian Team, by Alfa Romeo Racing, and by Toro Rosso. All other teams, except Red Bull, use intermediate solutions (more or less aggressive). Mercedes is one of these with the latest specification of the front wing of the W10 which turns out to be a middle ground (the right compromise?) Between the concept used by Ferrari and the more conventional concept mounted on the RB15.
A concept of the front wing that according to many experts generates less aerodynamic downforce than the rivals, compensated by a more aerodynamically loaded bargeboard area. This certainly removes precious energy from the operation of the diffuser. In other words, less the flow slows down in the area of the bargeboard, less downforce is generated in that area, and more downforce will be possible to generate, ideally, at the rear through the car bottom. And is this is why Ferrari has worked a lot on the efficiency of the rear body, going to taper the upper part of the bonnet. This is to increase the efficiency of the rear wing, a very important element in the Italian Team’s 2019 project precisely due to the fact that the fund is “limited” by a bargeboard area that is more aerodynamically charged than seen in past years. In China they tried to unload the rear, to recover even more ground on the obverse, with non-positive results.
However, aerodynamic loading and balancing would not seem to be lacking at high speeds, where design is usually focused more on reducing drag once the desired aerodynamic load is reached, while insufficient are at medium and low speeds where it is more important to be able to generate the desired downforce rather than working on drag. Many will wonder how aerodynamic downforce can be important at low speeds when it often speaks of a greater contribution given by the mechanical part. It is not so true, especially with these modern F1 cars. Very interesting what James Knapton, Red Bull Head of Vehicle Downforce, said a few weeks ago at a seminar: “I did a simulation once of a lap around Monaco with no downforce and it was 30-40s slower. Downforce makes the biggest difference in slow Speed corners”.
What then could the Ferrari problem be? An “anomalous” behavior, which not even the Italian team itself expected, of the front wing, and of the mechanics that work in symbiosis, with the steering angle varying or the speed decreasing. The result is a generation of unbalanced load at low speeds and not as constant as one would expect it would put the SF90 in difficulty, especially when entering and traveling slow corners. However, in China’s qualifying, Ferrari failed to be faster in any “peak” of the 16 curves on the Shanghai circuit than the Mercedes. It goes from a good 8 km / h in curve 11, an important problem that then also affected the subsequent long straight not allowing both SF90s to gain much time on the W10, at 6.5 km / h of turn 14 (hairpin in bottom to the front), to get to only 0.5 km / h on turn 7, one of the fastest. With regard to what has been said, the words of Nico Rosberg who claimed to have talked to people inside Ferrari are interesting: “Right now Mercedes is the big favorite. They look really very strong. Ferrari is struggling because it doesn’t have enough downforce, it’s where they lose a lot of time, it’s not ideal if you want to get off as fast as possible, so right now they’ve taken the wrong direction with their car, it’s not the right way to go. The best way is to try to get more downforce in the remaining areas of the car, like the front wing and the endplates. That’s where Ferrari needs to work. But they have a lot of work to do. This will take time, it’s certainly not a fantastic situation.” Words that in part would also justify “red” immobility from the Barcelona tests to date. Those small innovations brought to each Grand Prix, in season 2017 and 2018 style, are not enough but an update a little more substantial and time-consuming, to solve the problems at the front of the SF90?
“I’m not sure where they are losing, but they earn something like 4 tenths just in a straight line, then losing in the corners,” said Lewis Hamilton about Ferrari’s lack of performance. “It will, therefore, be interesting to discover their strategy for the next races, there are still many events in which their car could obscure ours. They have a shorter car than ours and this could work better on other tracks we are going on, but it is a bit early to say it, “said the Mercedes champion.
When a car does not react despite the great changes that are made to it then it means that it is very difficult to improve and mend the gap with those in front. And this now looks like the Ferrari situation. The car continues to have potential on the straight, but overall the Mercedes is better balanced and is fine regardless of the tire fitted. For Ferrari, it will be very difficult to undermine it and compete for the world championship victory, which sadly could be a two-way challenge between Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas. The next Grand Prix is that of Barcelona, where Ferrari has dominated in the winter tests: will it manage to recover at least what was lost? The feeling is that he will be able to do it only by letting Charles Leclerc express his full potential.
Great strides for Honda
Meanwhile, Ferrari and Mercedes’s rivals are making major improvements in their respective power units. Renault has introduced a new specification in Baku, but Red Bull with Honda is benefiting from the most substantial improvements.
Ahead of this weekend’s street race in Baku, Honda has introduced a new internal combustion engine, which they hope has improved durability, better reliability and at least a modest gain in terms of pure power. Bringing in a new engine as early as race four is a bold move when only three are permitted without penalty during a season.
The installation of the power unit in the structure of a Formula 1 single-seater is a particularly complex and decisive aspect for the performance that can be obtained from the car. One of the primary requirements in the arrangement of its elements is that of being able to properly cool all the components of the hybrid engine: heat engine, battery, MGU H, MGU K, and transmission. For this reason, it is necessary to create a complex combination of radiators that must be realized and arranged in search of the best compromise between antithetical needs. There is, in fact, a need to position them so as to receive air in adequate quantity and with the right amount of kinetic energy, but also to lower the masses to ensure a low center of gravity of the car. On the altar of thermodynamic efficiency, the positioning of the radiators at the lowest possible point has been sacrificed for a long time. After all, getting a power unit to work at maximum thermal efficiency guarantees low consumption, high power, and reliability. The radiators are therefore today placed as long as possible and around the longitudinal axis of the car.
The Japanese engine is guaranteeing a good level of performance and reliability this year, and it is therefore interesting to study its cooling system characteristics. In Honda’s engine, the suction box is divided into two channels. The lower one is used to supply air to the turbocharger while the upper one is used exclusively to convey air to some radiators. Returning to the turbocharger, the Honda power unit mounts the compressor and the turbine in a separate position, with the engine dividing them. This solution is now common to all motorists, except for Renault. The intercooler, to increase the density of the air introduced into the cylinders, cools the compressed air from the turbocharger before being introduced into the engine intake system.
Since there are two pairs of channels, the radiators of the intercooler system can only be two, and one is arranged in each of the side bells of the car. Above them are the radiators for cooling water and engine oil, one on each side. Radiator, particularly showy, used for cooling the MGU H unit which is housed above the engine block, in a hidden and particularly “suffocated” position. A system that is therefore particularly complex and rather voluminous, which however is guaranteeing the attainment of excellent performance and reliability on the part of the Japanese power unit.