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Formula 1

Mark Hughes: What pole fight reveals about Ferrari and Red Bull

by Mark Hughes
8 min read

So, which is quicker: the Ferrari or the Red Bull?

The literal answer after Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying is Ferrari, of course, given that Charles Leclerc’s pole lap was 0.123s faster than Max Verstappen’s best.

But it’s close enough that the quality of their respective laps decided it. Which of course is great news for the 2022 Formula 1 season’s prospects.

The backdrop to the contest of their respective laps has been the way Red Bull’s updated car usurped the Ferrari on the last day of testing after Ferrari had dominated up to that point.

Throughout the race weekend, the pattern seemed to be repeated: every time Verstappen went for a time in practice, he’d shoot to the top of the timing sheets and a few minutes later Leclerc would come out and invariably fall a tenth or so short.

It was close, and who knew what their respective fuel loads were, but that was the pattern. The Ferrari would almost claw back on the straights what the Red Bull had gained on it through the corners. But not quite.

But into qualifying that all changed. Right from Q1, Ferrari – with what appeared to be a tweaked downforce level – appeared to have the edge. So maybe the Scuderia had been holding something back after all?

But in the dynamics of the contest, in something so finely-balanced, did it push Verstappen into striving just a little too much? Although he headed Q2, that was only because the Ferraris were running used tyres on the first runs when the track appeared to be quicker.

Verstappen stayed in the garage for the Q2 second runs as the Ferraris set their times, Carlos Sainz within three-hundredths of Verstappen’s benchmark. It was very clear going into Q3 that this could go either way.

So Max made a tweak of front wing. It didn’t really work for him.

“I liked the feel of the car in Q2, but in Q3 not so much,” he said.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Maybe the windy gusts of the track punished the change? Whatever, Leclerc kept the car just the same. He was convinced he’d simply not put all the best parts of his lap together and all the time was within him, not the car.

Verstappen was hundredths slower than Leclerc on the first Q3 runs and everything hung on the final showdown. Let’s look in detail at their respective laps.

When you dig down into them, they are quite different despite the closeness of the end result. The cars clearly handle differently and deliver their power in a different way. But there were three key factors determining the outcome of this thrilling pole battle.

KEY FACTOR 1: Verstappen’s compromised prep lap

F1 Grand Prix Of Bahrain Qualifying

Despite a slightly messy run through the final corner for Verstappen to begin the lap – he gets a little crossed up mid-corner Turn 14-15 – the Red Bull is ahead by the second half of the pit straight, perhaps as the Ferrari’s greater porpoising comes into play.

It’s nowhere near as badly afflicted in this regard as the Mercedes, but the Red Bull really does look to have this generic 2022 car problem better sorted than the Ferrari.

The straightline speed pattern is in contrast to yesterday when the Ferrari was generally faster and losing time in the corners.

It would appear Ferrari used that power unit performance to add some downforce today, the better to look after the rear tyres on what is a very demanding track for the rubber. That’s a luxury last year’s power unit would not have permitted.

The Red Bull straightline advantage today can be seen by how much speed each car finds between the start/finish line and the speed trap a few hundred metres further down:

Verstappen Leclerc Difference
Start/finish 290.7 (2nd) 289.2 (7th) 1.5km/h
Speed trap 322.9 (2nd) 316.6 (11th) 6.3km/h

The Red Bull finds 32.2km/h (20mph) between those two points, the Ferrari only 27.4km/h (17mph).

By the time they arrive at the braking zone for Turn 1, the Red Bull is almost 0.1s ahead. But Leclerc makes every bit of that up under braking to bring the Ferrari level by the apex of that turn.

Partly, this may be because of Verstappen’s slightly compromised preparation to the lap. He had to back off to create a space to Kevin Magnussen’s Haas ahead of him from Turn 11 and for the next few corners.

He has probably begun the lap with tyre temperatures slightly below their optimum as a result, which would explain the wobble through the final two turns onto the straight. Having just experienced that and understood the likely reason, Verstappen is probably less than fully committed on the brakes into that first turn.

What we also see at Turn 1 is that Leclerc is overlapping the brake and throttle a little, probably controlling a slightly wayward rear end and/or preventing rear locking.

The Ferrari power unit picks up beautifully from low revs, sewing machine smooth in contrast to the Red Bull’s more aggressive delivery.

But by the time they are at the end of the straight up to Turn 4, the Red Bull has again pulled out time. Into Turn 4, the Red Bull is almost 0.2s ahead on the lap. Into the turn Leclerc is again overlapping the brake and throttle – and Verstappen is not. It may simply be different car traits or it’s possible Leclerc is trying to keep the diff locked for the entry of the turn.

Again the Ferrari pulls like a train on acceleration and without a long straight to induce the porpoising it’s clawed some of that 0.2s back as they race towards the challengingly fast downhill Turn 6.

As they cross the timing beam between Turns 5 and 6 which marks the end of Sector 1, the Ferrari is just 0.076s behind. It has pulled back over 0.1s in a few hundred metres just on acceleration.

KEY FACTOR 2: Leclerc’s Turn 6 commitment

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Qualifying Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Leclerc is super-brave with his entry speed into 6. He’s arrived there faster because of that acceleration advantage but he’s determined not to surrender any more of that speed than strictly necessary and takes in a big entry speed into the fourth gear corner.

He has to catch a pretty serious oversteer snap mid-corner, but it barely seems to cost him any momentum and he’s actually still quicker at the apex than Verstappen. Again, through the Turn 6-7 section he is relying on the brake pedal to adjust the car more than Verstappen.

Max appears to anticipate a slide on the exit of Turn 6 and backs off the throttle briefly, so allowing Leclerc to pull a little more time on him. By the time they get to the braking zone for the tight Turn 8, Leclerc has pulled himself absolutely level once again.

Leclerc’s huge commitment and busy feet through that fast, flowing downhill section is one of the three key factors which decided this battle.

KEY FACTOR 3: Gearing

F1 Grand Prix Of Bahrain Qualifying

But there are other factors at play too. The gearing of the two cars is quite different. The Ferrari would appear to be shorter-geared – and as a result there are several places on the track where Leclerc is actually a gear up on Verstappen. Between Turns 4 and 6 Leclerc is up to fifth and makes a downchange for Turn 6 whereas Verstappen is hanging onto fourth throughout the section.

As they accelerate down the hill through Turn 7, Leclerc is up to sixth, Verstappen only fifth. As they brake for the tight hairpin of 8, Leclerc downchanges to third, Verstappen to second.

There’s virtually no difference in the speed they are carrying at this point and the lower gear probably helps the Red Bull slow corner rotation – because it is significantly faster through the hairpin and pulls out almost 0.2s there.

The Ferrari again begins pulling that time back under acceleration and through the kink of Turn 9. Under braking for the awkward off-camber hairpin of 10, Verstappen is again down to second gear and Leclerc third – and this time the Red Bull’s advantage is even greater. As they exit from there Verstappen is almost 0.3s ahead.

The Ferrari begins pulling it all back again under acceleration and along the support pits straight. This time the Red Bull isn’t able to grind ahead by the end of the straight – and it would appear it’s because the gearing obliges Verstappen to hang onto to seventh gear before the braking zone for Turn 1 11 whereas Leclerc is up to eighth and still accelerating.

Perhaps the Ferrari’s power unit is able to deploy harder at this point in the lap, but whatever the reason its performance in this section is extremely impressive.

At just the point that Verstappen seems to hit a brick wall on acceleration and the Ferrari is still pulling, Leclerc goes properly ahead on the lap for the first time.

Turn 11 was Leclerc’s bogey corner in practice – he spun there twice as he sought to find the limit. This time he’s not quite so greedy with the entry kerb on the right as he approaches, but he’s still got plenty of his tyre over that kerb there.

He’s absolutely on the car’s limit into that turn and even though the Red Bull is marginally faster at the apex the Ferrari is still comfortably ahead on the lap and matches the Red Bull’s speed through Turns 12 and 13.

The Red Bull is travelling marginally faster as they reach the braking zone for the final interlinked Turns 14/15 and here it would appear that Verstappen, in being obliged to change down to third at a point where Leclerc is in fourth, just over-slows the car. Leclerc again is using throttle/brake overlap there and it seems to work brilliantly well for him.

F1 Grand Prix Of Bahrain Qualifying

Verstappen loses a big chunk of time on that entry and that decides it: the pole is Leclerc’s.

“Yes! I knew it was in it,” said Leclerc in celebration on the slow-down lap. “I just had to put everything together.”

This is just how it played out on this day at this track. It’s clear the potential performance of the two cars is very similar.

But it’s also clear that Leclerc’s very busy lap squeezed absolutely everything out of the car – and so intricate were his inputs it’s little surprise that it took a few attempts at putting it all together perfectly. Throw in a bit of compromise for Verstappen and that’s how it was decided.

Next: startline performance, strategy and tyre usage. This battle is far from over.

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