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Formula 1

How Ferrari hybrid upgrade is giving it an edge over McLaren

by Edd Straw
5 min read

Ferrari’s recent hybrid upgrade appears to have tipped the balance in the battle for third with McLaren, giving it the faster Formula 1 car both in qualifying and race trim across the past two race weekends.

The hybrid upgrade was introduced on Charles Leclerc’s car for the Russian Grand Prix weekend, with team-mate Carlos Sainz taking it for the Turkish Grand Prix. As a result, the United States Grand Prix was the first time both Ferrari drivers had the latest spec without one or the other having to serve a grid penalty.

Oct 25 : United States Grand Prix review

Leclerc and Sainz were fifth and sixth fastest in qualifying at the Circuit of the Americas (moving up one place each on the grid thanks to Valtteri Bottas’s grid penalty), with Leclerc two tenths faster than the lead McLaren of Daniel Ricciardo.

Even though Lando Norris could arguably have been quicker than Ricciardo but for a disappointing Q3, that’s a small but decisive advantage.

The pace advantage was also there in the race, with Leclerc finishing almost 25 seconds clear of Ricciardo. And while Sainz finished behind Ricciardo, that was a consequence of losing track position early in the race. Ferrari’s race pace was also strong in Turkey, where Leclerc finished fourth and Sainz came through to eighth from the back.

“I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but I think they’ve made that little step that has put them a nose in front, let’s say, on the majority of the circuits we’ll go to,” said Ricciardo when asked by The Race if Ferrari’s engine upgrade has tipped the balance in its favour.

“We might still find the odd circuit where we’ve got a bit more more but I would say, generalising it, they’re a little step in front now.

“We’ll have to work pretty hard to keep them at bay in the constructors’ championship.”

On average this season, the pace of Ferrari and McLaren has been near-identical based in dry conditions. But that’s based on the fastest lap of the weekend, usually in qualifying, and Ferrari has often been less competitive in race trim than in qualifying. This was particularly the case early in the season.

While McLaren is still ahead in the battle for third in the constructors’ championship by 3.5 points, the pendulum does appear to be swinging against it. However, given the relative performance is still close, the battle is still likely to go down to the wire as any advantage is small.

“I don’t think we were ever clearly ahead,” said Norris of the battle with Ferrari, which has been faster on 10 out of 17 weekends this season.

“There were races when we were ahead and sometimes by half-a-second or so, but in Turkey they were nine tenths ahead in qualifying. So there’s a lot of places they are a lot quicker than us and have been all season.

“They’ve had a lot more pole positions than us, they’ve had a quick car for the majority of the season, but in the races we’ve done better and today we just struggled in the race with the temperatures and so on.

“And their upgrades on the engine and things, that’s definitely helped them to take that little step they needed to be ahead of us.”

The improved race performance is significant because of the nature of the upgrade. The change is to the energy store, upgrading from a 400V to an 800V system, in line with its rivals. This is thanks to the improved energy density of the batteries and has multiple benefits.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship United States Grand Prix Qualifying Day Austin, Usa

In peak power terms, Ferrari only reckons it to be worth around 8bhp but it allows the hybrid system to be run more efficiently with faster harvesting rates and better temperature control.

So not only is there a small performance improvement, there is also the benefit that it can simply use the hybrid system more without hitting overheating problems. Effectively, it can use the hybrid system for longer thanks to this.

This also has benefits in terms of running a less compromised downforce level set-up-wise, which was a big limitation last season. And while the Mercedes power unit is still stronger, this has further mitigated a weakness for Ferrari in its battle with McLaren.

“The power is always available through the straight line, so you get the benefit from it at the start of the straight line but as well at the end,” said Binotto when asked by The Race to explain the benefits of the hybrid system.

“The way we can quantify that, if I look at this weekend we were running maximum downforce. But we were somehow matching, or almost matching, the speed of the others.

“If we consider how the situation was last year, it is certainly a big step forward. So we still know that there is a gap to the best engine today, but we believe that gap today is not so dramatic.”

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship United States Grand Prix Race Day Austin, Usa

Speaking after qualifying, Charles Leclerc admitted Ferrari expected McLaren to be stronger in Austin, but that his performance “shows the upgrades are working”.

He also described the car as “competitive all round” as a result.

After finishing fourth, he indicated that he feels the power unit upgrade has given Ferrari a small, but significant, gain.

“The differences between McLaren and us are very, very small, so obviously since we put the new engine in we gained a little bit,” said Leclerc.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship United States Grand Prix Qualifying Day Austin, Usa

“That was enough to put us in the best position possible.

“Even though 2021 is a season where we are focusing on 2022. we still had two or three upgrades this year that pushed us to perform better every time. So it’s down to the two or three upgrades that we brought this year.”

What is important to stress is that while Ferrari now does appear to have the edge, it’s not enough to make it dominant in this battle.

With five races remaining, it’s still likely to go down to the wire and, as Ricciardo showed by beating Sainz at Austin, the performance levels are close enough that a McLaren can still stay ahead of a quicker Ferrari.

As Ricciardo mentioned, there could also be tracks where the performance sensitivities are in favour of McLaren – and it’s important to note that it performed superbly at Monza and Sochi where aero efficiency is particularly important.

But while there are no guarantees, this small swing in an extremely close season-long battle could prove to be decisive in the fight for third in the constructors’ championship.

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